“Free.” Founder Kenzie Blackwell: “a power of positive force to be reckoned with”

May 17, 2022 by Gabrielle Martin

Kenzie Blackwell is this week’s Human of Hingham: in one year, she built and launched Free., an organization that ensures menstruators have access to period products for free, period.

She’s also a wife, mom of two, and proud pet parent to Soda, “a Havanese who is everybody’s favorite.”

Those who know Kenzie say she’s “a power of positive force to be reckoned with” – and this week, The Anchor invites you to join us for a Q&A-style interview with the “Free.” founder to discuss her hometown of Hingham and how she’s combatting period poverty on the South Shore.

Blackwell was born and raised in Sevierville, a city in eastern Tennessee settled in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. “Most people will recognize that area as home to Dollywood, and the one and only Dolly Parton,” Kenzie says, and before I can ask, she adds: “And no, we don’t know her!”

The Volunteer State native attended East Tennessee State University for both her undergraduate and graduate studies, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in History with a minor in Psychology and a Master’s degree in School Counseling; from there, Kenzie continued her education at the University of Georgia to work on a PhD in Counseling Psychology.

“I took a leave of absence two years into my program because I met my husband [Brandon] during this time, and love got the best of us. We thought it best to get married and decided he would finish his PhD first, and we would move back so I could finish mine,” Kenzie explains. “The recession, two kids, four moves, and a pandemic later… It's been almost 17 years, so I am pretty sure that leave has expired and we are firmly planted in Massachusetts!”

In the early years of their marriage, both Brandon and Kenzie worked as Graduate Resident Tutors at MIT, living in a dorm and supervising 48 students; after Brandon graduated, the couple relocated to Quincy.

“Not being from the area, we had no idea about life on the South Shore,” Kenzie recalls. “After Patrick was born, we quickly found Hingham’s playgrounds and downtown, and fell in love with the town. Life led us to Franklin next, which we absolutely loved, but we kept being drawn back to Hingham due to its coastal setting and quick access to Boston.”

The Blackwell family of four officially made the move to town back in 2018, residing between historic Downtown and picturesque Crow Point. “So technically we have only lived here four years, but in reality, our hearts have been in Hingham since 2007.”

What are some of your hobbies or favorite things to do around town?

“I am constantly floored by all [of] the wonderful options we have [here] in Hingham; having everything one could possibly need within walking distance is a rare gem in this day and age! I especially love that we have access to Bare Cove, Wompatuck, and World’s End – to be so close to the city and have such beautiful spaces to enjoy nature is really comforting to my soul. I will always be a country mouse at heart!”

Do you have a favorite restaurant, park, coffee shop, store?

“That’s a hard one!  We are spoiled here in Hingham to have so many great places to pause and enjoy a meal.  I love Tosca and Alma Nove for special dinners, Square Cafe for patio lunches with friends, and our family really enjoys Stars for Sunday brunch.

[As for park,] I could spend days in Wompatuck; every time we visit I feel like I’m back home in the Smokies – with less hills! [And coffee,] I don’t know how Redeye does it, but theirs is perfection!  I really enjoy grabbing a cup [there] and sitting outside with a friend.

I love fun statement jewelry [so[ one of my favorite stops downtown is the Coop because they have such fun earrings!  I also love Kindred and their fantastic selection of unique accessories.”

What are some of your hobbies or favorite things to do in general?

“I love to cook and feed people! Nothing gives me greater joy than visiting with friends over a home cooked meal.”

Next, can you tell me about Free? For our readers who may not know, what is Free?

“Free. (pronounced Free Period) is a ministry through St. John’s that provides menstruation products to those in need.”

How did Free come to be?

“In November of 2019 I went to visit Hope & Comfort with a group of Hingham students called Paw Prints. Paw Prints is a group [that facilitates] elementary-aged students [becoming] involved in community service projects, and Hope & Comfort serves thousands of hygiene insecure Boston Metro youth every month.

No hygiene products are covered by benefits – soap, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant… none of it. As they were walking us through their warehouse, I noticed a comparatively small stack of period products next to mountains of shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant, and I simply asked if they needed products.

I call this moment my ‘Mack Truck Moment’ because the answer literally hit me like one and shifted the ground under my feet; it was explained to our group that period products are in short supply and in very high demand as they are not covered benefits. They went on to inform us that students, right here in Massachusetts, are missing school every month because they aren’t able to access products to support this natural biological function.

We left the tour, but the conversation never left my mind.  Within the next month the pandemic started and, like everyone else, my immediate focus went to staying safe and trying to figure out life in this ‘new normal.’ That said, I never stopped thinking about period poverty in our community: I read, researched and tried to formulate a way to bring together a real response.

When things finally settled down I approached the leadership at St. John’s, our church, and asked if it was something the church would like to take on as a new ministry. Tim and Jack immediately said yes, and so Free. came to be!”

When did you begin development? Operations?

“Over the next two months I started calling local organizations to see if they could use donations; within five phone calls or so I had identified 700 local residents who needed products. It occurred to me that period poverty was a real issue on the South Shore, and I also found our part of the state didn’t have a solid source of product support like many Metro communities. Knowing that a program needed to exist, but didn’t, only gave me more motivation to create a solid, consistent response.

In April 2021, I sent out a volunteer ask to the congregation and a few friends to see if anyone would be interested in helping promote and support a town product drive.  At least fifteen people immediately stepped up! Then, in May, a group of Hingham High School students joined us and we advertised to our community that we were going to try to supply everyone we could. Within a month we had collected over 17,500 products! I was absolutely floored – and that same HHS group is holding a 2022 drive [today].

During this time I also happened across a local organic company, TOP (The Organic Project). I sent out an email seeking advice to their general customer service address and within a day I got a call from their CEO wanting to talk about Free. and what our vision was for our community. It was there a wonderful partnership began.

We have been proud recipients of TOP’s generosity since!  To date, over 40% of our distribution has been environmentally-friendly, chemical-free products through their donations and bulk purchasing options. To be able to give the Dignity of Choice to our community is a fact I don’t take for granted; everyone should have the ability to support their period in ways that honor not only biological needs, but their environmental and ethical standards too.

Free., through TOP, is able to make organics accessible to those who are often priced out of this option.

Before our launch, I also contacted Senator O’Connor to advocate for access to products access through the I Am bill.  During our conversations he understood the need here on the South Shore and wrote funding for Free. into last year’s budget. I am honored to have the trust and support of Senator O’Connor and our elected officials who supported our impact on the South Shore.”

What has the last year for Free looked like?

“The last year has been an absolute miracle. We now have 17 Community Partners, or distribution points, and are providing the dignity of period security to an average of 1,000 individuals per month. [Additionally,] we have joined the Alliance for Period Supplies, the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition, and have been the focus of graduate courses at both Northeastern and Bentley Universities."

We have been able to expand to the Greater Brockton area through a grant from the United Way/Greater Brockton Health Alliance, as well as to Fall River through our state funding.  Free. has served as a model program for interested communities in Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Vermont, Tennessee, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and elsewhere in Massachusetts.

We have organized and inventoried 240,000+ products in my home. [After I] moved the growing stacks from my dining room to our living room, [I] then realized it was time to let them take over our garage. Hopefully we will find storage space in the near future!

Our operation model is quite simple: every month we fulfill orders from our Community Partners. They let us know how many clients they have to supply for and we make sure they get products their clients prefer. We have purchasing relationships with TOP and The Alliance for Period Supplies which allow us to buy in bulk; we also appreciate and rely on local donations to fulfill our inventory needs.”

I heard you just reached a 200,000 donated products mark; what was that moment like for you?

“It hit me that the number of products donated was not the milestone to celebrate: what is cause for celebration is our community has come together to provide 200,000+ reasons [that] lives can be lived with dignity.

Each product represents a moment where a recipient doesn’t have to choose between staying home, or going to school or work; each product gives parents extra breathing room to put food on tables. Each product is a simple necessity, sometimes as inexpensive as a nickel for us to provide, that was keeping a neighbor in need from fully engaging in life. That love and support, given by our community, is an honor to be part of.”

Who are some of your community partners on the South Shore?

Bay State Community Services, Health Imperatives, Interfaith Social Services, South Shore Foster Closet, Southwest Community Food Center, several South Shore public schools, and Wellspring.”

And what has your experience been at St. John's?

“St. John’s has been in full support of this project from the get-go!  Most of our volunteers are parishioners – though you don’t have to be a parishioner to volunteer, and many aren’t!. [Reverend Tim Schenck] has a great quote on our website about why this is a service within St. John’s:

‘At root, I think of this as a theological issue, which is why I’m proud our church has embraced this cause. As people of faith, we vow to respect the dignity of every human being and this is, ultimately, an issue of respect and dignity. The mission of Free. is to ensure that a basic biological function, one instituted by God in the creation of humanity, doesn’t act as a barrier to living a full and fruitful life.

So in addition to collecting products for distribution to partner agencies, we also hope to raise awareness nationally and encourage other faith-based organizations and nonprofits to take up the mantle of this long-hidden issue of equity that directly impacts so many.’”

What has been the most challenging part of Free.?

“The most challenging part of Free. is knowing we are not reaching everyone who needs us.  We make a promise to every Community Partner that we will be a consistent source of support for their recipients; making sure we are consistent means we are constantly looking for funding, donations, and creative purchasing solutions. Because of this promise, we can’t sign on everyone who needs products – yet! We won’t give up!”

The most rewarding?

“The most rewarding part of this program is knowing we are encouraging our community to talk about an issue that has stayed hidden for far too long. Having students ask to be involved by hosting drives and working as advocates means talking about periods in public shifting away from taboo to accepted. It is heartbreaking to me to know that menstruators would rather miss out on life because of being embarrassed to ask for products.”

What do you envision the future of Free. looks like?

“My dream is for Free. to become a recognizable source of support from Quincy to Provincetown, and from the coast to Fall River. There are so many large areas of our state that still don’t have support. Even when the I Am bill passes, there will still be individuals struggling to purchase supplies. Our work will not end.”

What inspires you? What motivates you?

“My first love has always been history [so] I have listened to stories and read about people who have completed seemingly impossible tasks my entire life; I’ve always been motivated to try and live up to that standard of leading with compassion and no strings attached service while working towards a solution.”

What's one thing people may not know about you?

“I waited tables and worked for a catering service during undergrad. I was often up at 4:00am to prepare and open for breakfast, going to class and campus activities, and then working a dinner shift.  It was chaos and I absolutely loved it!”

What are you most looking forward to in the next 5 months?

“The few months are going to be full of ‘normal’ for our family: we are finally going on a few adventures over the summer which had to be postponed due to COVID.”

Anything else you'd like to include?

“Free. is completely run by volunteer power!  Every dollar donated has gone directly to product purchases – that said, in the coming months we will be fundraising for storage space.

The Free. website is freeperiodministry.org, where you will find links to our Community Partners, further reading about the reality of Period Poverty, and information on how to donate and volunteer.

We have also several events and drives happening soon:

  • Hingham High School students are collecting products now through May 27!
  • Local Girl Scouts Elise Fickes and Dillon Turner are working towards their silver awards and have chosen Free. as the focus of their project; donation bins are located at Carolanne’s, the Girl Scout house, and St. John’s (inside the main entrance and in the donation bin at the side entrance if the door is locked).
  • We’ll be hosting a Giving Party to Empower 500 Students on May 11 from 5:00-7:00pm at The Collective Co. in Scituate! TOP is supporting Free. by donating supplies to help us provide for 500 local students.  A link to sign up to help pack supplies can be found here.
  • Then, May 24 at 4:00pm at the State House, Free. is joining the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition to rally to end period poverty.  A Hingham High School student has the opportunity to address the crowd. Anyone can attend! For more information, visit https://www.mmecoalition.com/.”

2 thoughts on ““Free.” Founder Kenzie Blackwell: “a power of positive force to be reckoned with””

  1. Kenzie’s idea was something so simple and has become a movement, her desire to help another woman’s life has touched and change the way we see a human need . Her spirit is contagious. Love Kenzie

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.