Nadya Okamoto, in the truest sense of the word, is a fighter. From growing up in an abusive household to being legally homeless at only 15-years-old, Nadya is no stranger to hardship. But what sets this 22 Under 22 winner apart is her will to persevere—even when it seemed impossible.
In December of 2013, Nadya drew inspiration from her mother and turned all of her obstacles into an opportunity by founding Camions of Care (COC). Now an established non-profit with a network of over 2,100 volunteers, COC is responsible for the distribution of feminine hygiene products and engagement of youth leadership on a global scale. As Nadya herself would say, “By changing the way we talk about menstrual health, we can change the world.”
Name: Nadya Okamoto
College: Harvard University
Majors: Political Science and Government
Graduation year: 2020
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Her Campus: What is the main thing you hope to achieve for women’s health through Camions of Care?
Nadya Okamoto: I hope to foster a global community that celebrates menstrual hygiene and also prioritizes and addresses it as a natural need to make our global development successful. Periods are currently the number one reason why girls miss school in developing countries. In some cultures, menarche, a girl’s first period, is the single event that leads to her dropping out of school, getting married at a very young age or undergoing genital mutilation. If we invest in women’s empowerment as a key to global development, we need to unite around a universal menstrual movement to ensure that all women and girls are able to discover and reach their full potential.
HC:How has your close relationship with your family shaped who you are today and your vision for tomorrow?
NO: I believe that my family life, and especially what my family has faced together, is what defines who I am and how I conduct myself as a leader. When I speak of my family, I am referring to my two younger sisters, my mother and my two honorary father figures. Growing up in a household where abuse was present, and as the oldest of three girls, I became a very protective big sister at a young age. In protecting them, while watching my mother fight, sacrifice and survive for our well-being—and after much healing—I was shaped into an outspoken leader who prioritizes maximizing others’ potential. Many years after my parents’ divorce when I was 9-years-old, in the spring of my freshman year of high school when my family experienced legal homelessness, and in witnessing my mother’s thoughtfulness and resourcefulness, I learned to prioritize health and education. No matter what, food and school were the two things that my mother always made sure we had access to. Although I am unsure of what exactly I would like to pursue, I know that I want to continue learning so that I can better prepare myself to make systemic social change that empowers others to maximize their potential.
HC: Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?
NO: Growing up, my biggest inspiration was my mother. I did not fully comprehend just how much she inspired my behavior, values and motivation until last month when I moved out of my house (and state) the day after graduation to take a job in Los Angeles for the summer. My mom has always been a working parent (often with multiple jobs). Even with raising three children all on her own, she still made time for us—even if it meant dragging us to the dinner table almost every night or making us put away our devices to read together before bedtime when we were younger. My mother led by example: when I think of my most memorable childhood moments, they are ones where I felt completely embarrassed because my mother would very publicly (and often loudly) defend strangers she saw disrespected. My mother was highly educated, eventually leaving a career in corporate law to prioritize her health and her family, and devote her efforts to something she found more fulfilling: non-profit management and writing. My mother continues to work extremely hard and fight for our family, and she is brutally honest with me and reminds me to stay grounded. Thanks, Mom!
HC: What’s one thing you wish you could tell your younger self when you were in your darkest place?
NO:Calm down! Relax! It will be okay! I was probably one of the most anxious kids growing up. Perhaps it was growing up in downtown New York City post-9/11 or living in a household where my parents were constantly fighting, but I developed intense anxiety at a young age. I would later learn to recognize my anxiety and try to limit my fearful thinking. When I was younger, I would catastrophize everything that remotely freaked me out, whether it was in regard to my safety, health or personal success. I just wish that I could take my younger self by the shoulders and say, “Calm down! It’s okay! It will be okay!”
HC: At what moment did you realize that you wanted to start your own foundation?
NO: By the time I was 16, my family had just moved back into our apartment after experiencing legal homelessness, and I had suffered sexual assault. My sexual assault caused me to seek refuge one weekend at a battered women’s shelter in Portland, Oregon. On my final night in the shelter and after intense reflection on what I had experienced and learned that past year, I realized how privileged I was, the potential I held as a teen girl and also how often I heard stories of homeless women struggling with menstrual hygiene. It was at that one weekend in the shelter, that I knew I needed to take action, which catalyzed the beginning of Camions of Care.
HC: How do you hope to expand COC in the future?
NO: I hope to expand COC through our nationwide campus chapter network and our distribution capabilities. By engaging more youth leaders, we will be able to foster social change with the next generation surrounding the topic of menstruation and expand our reach for social media, advocacy and education campaigns. In working to expand our distribution of feminine hygiene products, which means increasing the number of non-profit partners that we have, we will also play a part in empowering new audiences of women and girls through the power of periods.
HC: What does the term “gender equality” mean to you?
NO: To me the term “gender equality” means equal opportunity, respect and recognized potential of all people regardless of gender. It also means an equal playing field for both males and females—meaning both genders have the same advantages and disadvantages for achievement, regardless of natural needs (this means equal pay and representation is necessary).
HC: What do you hope people take away from your story?
NO: I hope that people will understand how blessed they are to have a voice and a platform to amplify their potential, and how that is expanded with education and employment opportunities. In realizing how privileged we are to have a space where our voices are heard, especially in a world where many feel silenced, I hope that people recognize the importance of cultivating their passion into a profession that benefits and empowers others.