Now in high school, Philly girls revisit earlier kindness, donating tampons, other items

Sasha Mannino (center) and Iris Peron-Ames (right), both 15, look on as Kathryn Gay speaks with them Greenfield Elementary School on Tuesday. Graduates of Greenfield, Mannino and Peron-Ames now attend Science Leadership Academy and are running their second campaign to collect tampons and other toiletries for young people in need. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Sasha Mannino (center) and Iris Peron-Ames (right), both 15, look on as Kathryn Gay speaks with them Greenfield Elementary School on Tuesday. Graduates of Greenfield, Mannino and Peron-Ames now attend Science Leadership Academy and are running their second campaign to collect tampons and other toiletries for young people in need. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Philly.com.

You can’t outgrow kindness.

In late 2017, three eighth-grade girls from Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School decided to collect tampons for low-income students at the University of Pennsylvania. They’d heard about an undergraduate who had to choose between eating breakfast or buying tampons.

Tragically, as the girls were planning, one of them, Kalina Brook Kozlowski, took her own life at age 14.

This week, Kozlowski’s friends — Sasha Mannino and Iris Peron-Ames, both 15 now and living in Fairmount — started a second collection of tampons and other toiletries, this time at their high school, Science Leadership Academy in Center City.

“We want to make it a tradition,” Peron-Ames said.

“And we want to honor Kalina,” Mannino added.

Kalina Brook Kozlowski, 14, helped friends collect feminine hygiene products for low-income students at the University of Pennsylvania. She killed herself in 2017 before the drive finished. (Courtesy of Kathryn Gay)

On Tuesday, the girls revisited their alma mater, returning heroes padding into the school lobby in unassuming, shy-girl triumph, greeted warmly by their mentor, John Neary. National philanthropy professionals who learned about the tampon drive had lauded the girls, saying they’d never heard of teenagers working to help college students in such a way.

Neary told Peron-Ames and Mannino that he helped start another drive for toiletries at Greenfield this year, the teacher following his students into a world of high-minded giving, drawing on the memory of a remarkable child who had burned to make things better for people.

“These girls inspired other students,” said Neary, a language arts teacher. “They set the example. It tells students, ‘You can help, too.’”

That idea was echoed by Kozlowski’s mother, Kathryn Gay, 56, who joined the girls at Greenfield on Tuesday in an impromptu reunion.

“Kalina brought out the good in people,” Gay said. “Hers is a legacy to help others.”

Not everything worked out according to the girls’ original plan. As often happens, Peron-Ames and Mannino have learned early in life that good intentions can be thwarted.

Even though a staffer in a Penn office had said last year that the university would happily accept the tampons, the school ultimately balked. A Penn official said the university had “no process in place” to take the donation, which the girls never tallied or weighed.

“When we found out the tampons weren’t going to Penn, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re not taking it,'” Peron-Ames said. “It was hard to scramble, and it caused me a lot of stress.

“But I learned to persevere through things.”

Through an intermediary, the girls engaged Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit in East Falls, as well as in Boston and Chicago, that provides everyday essentials to low-income children from birth to age 12.

Cradles took the first load of tampons, dubbed Kalina’s Cabinet, Gay said. The girls expanded this year’s drive to include diapers, shampoo, toothpaste, soap, and toilet paper.

Instead of toting toiletries to Science Leadership Academy for collection, donors can simply send the supplies directly to Cradles, Gay said.

“Cradles has been a wonderful partner,” she said.

Suzanne Allen-Weise, senior manager of family philanthropy with Cradles in East Falls, said personal hygiene items such as tampons and diapers are not covered by government assistance programs for people in poverty. So, a donation effort such as Kalina’s Cabinet “provides items that are desperately needed and under-supplied to the families we serve. It’s helping us make a difference.”

Notes that Iris Peron-Ames wrote on her wrist are visible as she speaks with a friend at her alma mater, Greenfield Elementary School in Center City. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The girls agree that it was Kozlowski who came up with the drive to donate tampons to Penn. They described her as the most socially aware of the trio. Kozlowski marched against President Donald Trump, advocated for mental-health awareness, and raised funds for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

As a young child, she traveled to Trinidad with Gay, then working as a public health official on food-borne illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I tried to instill the idea of helping others into Kalina,” said Gay, clearly buoyed by seeing her daughter’s pals again. “She embraced that.”

WHYY is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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