Group photo of I Support the Girls staff and Affiliates.

Remember When We Could Hug? Looking Back on the 2019 International Affiliate Retreat

In an era of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we miss when meeting IRL and hugging were the norm. These hard times have us thinking back to the ultimate IRL moment of 2019: I Support the Girls’ first ever International Affiliate Retreat.

At the onset of November, thirty-five women from across the country gathered together in Baltimore, MD for a weekend full of learning and connecting. In a traditional team building event, one may assume trust falls and ice breakers. Not with I Support the Girls. Instead, we raced to assemble champaign glasses on a 65 mph moving school bus. We nonchalantly cut a giant red ribbon with 3-foot scissors at the opening of our Maryland Distribution Center. We even toured Washington, D.C. in the middle of the National’s World Series Parade.  By the end of the weekend, thirty-five strangers felt like friends.

Gif of I Support the Girls staff cutting the ribbon at the opening of the Maryland Distribution Center.
(Left to Right) Rachael Heger, Dana Marlowe, Erin Persaud, and Christy Littrell cut the ribbon at the opening of the Maryland Distribution Center.

A Weekend of Learning

Throughout the weekend, guest speakers educated our Affiliates with actionable knowledge they could take home. Speakers ran the gambit. The ACLU challenged Affiliates to imagine what it would be like to have a period in prison. Affiliates ripped and twisted low-quality maxipads to form their own tampons. What a moment of empathy and concern.

Affiliates making their own tampons out of maxipads.
(Left to Right) Katie Dionne and Ashley Obptande, ISTG-Maine, and Nancy Blount, ISTG-Tampa Bay, make their own tampons out of cheap maxipads.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness put into perspective the work that we do. Affiliates learned that the women they serve are the largest growing segment of the homeless population. In addition, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, co-founder of Period Equity, inspired our Affiliates to keep fighting for menstrual equity.

Finally, we heard practical tips on how to utilize social and local media from Spring Insight and Scott Circle Communications, companies that help organizations reach a greater audience through media. The training worked wonders! Our Affiliates have been all over their local news.

Sharing Stories

Not only did our Affiliates learn from our speakers, but they also gained insight from each other. Veteran Affiliates, Alicia Alexander, ISTG-Edwardsville, IL, Corliss Seabron, ISTG-Phoenix, and Bekah Page-Gourley, ISTG-Detroit shared their favorite moments and hard lessons learned as Affiliate Directors.

Affiliates sit on a panel and share advice to fellow Affiliates.
(Left to Right) Rachael Heger, National Director of Affiliate Outreach, Alicia Alexander, ISTG-Edwardsville, IL, Bekah-Page Gourley, ISTG-Detroit, and Corliss Seabron, ISTG-Phoenix, share advice to fellow Affiliates.

“It’s been amazing being able to swap ideas, to find out who our fellow Affiliates are, and how I Support the Girls fits into their lives,” Linda Willimer, of I Support the Girls-Central/South New Jersey, said. “I took copious notes because I didn’t want to forget anything that I heard and I thought, ‘Oh yes, that’s a great idea.’”

Women Worth Celebrating

On our final night, our Affiliates, staff, and honored guests dressed for the red carpet (yes–literally) at our BRAvo Awards Banquet. With our bellies full of Maggiano’s pasta and famous Apple Crisp, we took a walk down ISTG’s memory lane. We watched a slideshow highlighting I Support the Girls’ growth and accomplishments over the past four years. An organization that began with 8,000 bras and tampons in one basement, has grown to a team of over 50 passionate and hardworking women. These women are the reason why ISTG has donated over 9.5 million products to date.

Affiliates pose in front of the I Support the Girls Step and Repeat.
(Left to Right) Maria Gomez, ISTG-Houston, Graciela Whitley, ISTG-Dallas/Ft. Worth, Melissa Reese, ISTG-Fort Collins, Corliss Seabron, ISTG-Phoenix, and Zuzana Polakova, ISTG-Austin, pose at the BRAvo Awards Banquet.

During the banquet, guests signed “Gratefulness Pumpkins,” reflecting on the things they’re most thankful for. Additionally, our Affiliates wrote special notes of advice and encouragement to new Affiliates. And, of course, smiles and selfies abounded in front of our traveling ISTG backdrop.

We highlighted a few Affiliates for their outstanding achievements. Joanna Wyner, of ISTG-Cleveland, Kathy Jackson, of ISTG-Columbus, and Graciela Whitley, of ISTG-Dallas/Forth Worth, received the Bronze, Silver, and Golden Tampon Awards (respectively) for the most donations distributed in 2019. We ended the night by surprising Linda Willimer with the annual BRAvo Award, for going above and beyond as an Affiliate.

Dignity Has No Borders

On our last day, the room erupted into a sea of sniffles after hearing from our Affiliate Director in Pakistan, Sara Asif. Sara bravely shared her fight to break period stigma and support women and girls in her community. Finally, Affiliates Jane Holmes in Australia and Denise Fabella in Manila, Philippines shared the joy and hardships they face spearheading ISTG internationally. There are no borders when it comes to our outreach. We are so thankful that even our sisters abroad could join us virtually.

A Bond of Sisterhood

I Support the Girls sometimes feels like being in a sorority. No, we’re (usually) not matching outfits or chanting recruitment songs. Rather, it’s in the automatic feeling of sisterhood.

I Support the Girls Affiliates and staff pose in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC.
I Support the Girls Affiliates and staff pose in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Every single Affiliate has a different story of how she got involved with I Support the Girls. Whether it’s Emily Havens, ISTG-Utah, who became an Affiliate after writing a story about I Support the Girls. Or, Teresa Key, ISTG-Colorado Springs, and her husband, Justin, who immediately filled his Costco cart with pads and tampons to donate to ISTG after learning about the tampon tax. Shoutout to Justin for being our first male Affiliate Director!

As you scanned the room, you saw women ranging from ages 16 to their upper 60s, high schoolers to grandmothers. You observed different skin tones, countries of birth, accents, and backgrounds. Yet, we all connected on our passion to restore dignity to women. Melissa Reese, ISTG-Fort Collins, said it best: “There’s just this ‘thing’ inside each of us that keeps us all going.”

“It’s amazing, it’s camaraderie, it’s love, it’s friends, it’s all of these things,” Willimer said about the weekend.

I’m glad we all found our “tribe.” We may be an international sorority that only meets up every other year, but our sisterhood has pledged to support dignity and self esteem for all women in need.

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