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From left, volunteer Diane Walters, INCA-RSVP director Wanda Gray, Tiara Blue and INCA-RSVP coordinator Amber Freeman pose with deodorant sticks donated by an entrepreneur in Southern California. (INCA-RSVP)
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TISHOMINGO — Two months ago, I shared a personal memory on NonDoc about the pains of growing up too poor to afford deodorant. The reason: I wanted to reach my state representatives.

Naive, I guess, but not unprecedented. NonDoc is a publication read and disseminated by both sides of the aisle. House Minority Leader Scott Inman (D-Del City) has quoted from the publication, and Gov. Mary Fallin posted NonDoc’s Board of Equalization story on her Facebook page.

What better way, I thought, to reach the people who could actually effect widespread change? I had this fanciful idea that somebody in the State Capitol would read the essay and be galvanized to address the problem.

But the folks up there have bigger fish to fry — like rescuing Oklahoma from financial insolvency.

Despite the deafening silence from Oklahoma representatives, I have been humbled, inspired and moved to tears by the actions of our readers. Friends tagged me in Facebook threads where individuals, churches and organizations across the state (from Ardmore to Oklahoma City to McAlester to Tishomingo) traded ideas, scheduled meetings and made plans to hold drives for toiletry items to help young people in their communities.

But the most striking contribution I witnessed was not from someone from my town or my county or even my state. It came from a man across the country in southern California.

Entrepreneur: ‘Who is in need of deodorant?’

Billy Thompson

Meet Billy Thompson, co-owner of The Thompson Tee. You might recognize him from Shark Tank. In an episode that aired May 5, he and his partner Randy Choi struck a deal with “shark” Robert Herjavec by selling a 25 percent stake in their company for $700,000. The Thompson Tee sells patented undershirts, handcrafted in the United States, that block underarm sweat and prevent embarrassing sweat marks and yellow stains.

The very day NonDoc published my essay, March 9, Thompson contacted me on LinkedIn. He had come across the article through a Google alert. (He monitors all things underarm-sweat-related.) In his LinkedIn message, he said he could not imagine lacking deodorant or antiperspirant as a teenager. He suffered from axillary hyperhidrosis, a condition that caused him to sweat excessively in middle school and high school.

“I have very vivid memories from that time,” Thompson later told me in an email interview. “I was in 7th grade, wearing a blue T-shirt … and there it was, the dreaded wet mark. I tried everything, starting with antiperspirants to [even] duct taping the underarms of my undershirts, thinking it would better block the sweat. Nothing worked.”

His experiences ultimately led him to invent The Thompson Tee.

At the end of his first LinkedIn message to me, Thompson posed the following question: “Who is in need of deodorant?”

Quantifying the need

I set off to find the answer. I contacted my friend, Wanda Gray, who is Johnston County’s INCA-RSVP project director. RSVP is a division of CNCS Senior Corps, powered by volunteers 55 and older.

The original post:

My family was too poor to afford deodorant

‘My family was too poor to afford deodorant’ by Tiara Blue

“We are like AmeriCorps, only older!” Gray quipped.

Immediately after my essay was published, Gray began organizing. Soon, she announced on Facebook that she would be accepting donations to create hygiene packages for impoverished young people in Johnston County.

Like Thompson, Gray’s involvement came from a personal place. She had grown up in a family of 17 children, where a priority was placed on food. Basic hygiene products were often considered unaffordable luxuries.

Using information about our county’s federal poverty level by age demographic and the number of young people who qualify for free or reduced lunches, Gray, Thompson and I quantified the need in Johnston County: 1,000.

Fulfillment easier said than done

Even though Thompson has never been to our community, and even though his schedule was hectic with preparations before and obligations after appearing on Shark Tank, he contacted several vendors. Apparently, it is more difficult than one might imagine to purchase 1,000 sticks of deodorant from any single vendor; several imposed caps on orders, and the shipping fees were exorbitant. Eventually, we figured out a loophole.

Thompson placed 10 orders for 100 sticks of deodorant from Walmart.com. The first nine times, Walmart allowed him to ship the deodorant to a local Madill Walmart for free. For the final 100 sticks of deodorant, Thompson had to ship to INCA’s Tishomingo office.

INCA-RSVP launches Don’t Sweat It program

Shark Tank
KXII reporter Sydney Gray recently interviewed INCA-RSVP director Wanda Gray (no relation) for a news report about The Thompson Tee’s donation of 1,000 sticks of deodorant as result of an essay published on NonDoc. (INCA-RSVP)

The deodorant will be incorporated into a program Wanda and INCA-RSVP have kickstarted called Don’t Sweat It. The program will provide hygiene bundles that include deodorant, soap, shampoo and conditioner in small, discrete packages to all of the middle schools and high schools in Johnston County.

The Thompson Tee’s donation of 1,000 sticks of deodorant will actually impact young lives in Johnston County. It may seem like a simple thing, but a stick of deodorant is empowering. Instead of worrying about whether a classmate can smell him or her, a pre-teen or teenager can focus in class. A stick of deodorant gives a young person the power to mute (or at least diminish) the “cognitive noise” that accompanies the more unpleasant aspects of poverty.

And Thompson hopes to build on the donation one day.

“My original plan, and still a possibility, was to launch a worldwide crowd-fund campaign with the goal of providing deodorant for every kid in America who couldn’t afford it,” Billy said. “We have over 100,000 customers across 80 different countries, and I know this has resonated with them as well. We have the greatest customers in the world!”

Shared humanity unites us

As for me and my take-away, the response to the NonDoc essay has been life-changing. I know that’s a trite cliché, but it’s true. My view of the world is altered.

Through this, I’ve seen firsthand the inherent goodness of people, the willingness of others to work toward a solution once a problem is recognized. I’ve seen a deservedly successful business on the West Coast reach out to a small, rural community in Oklahoma.

In the media, we’re bombarded by the narrative that our country is the Divided States of America, but it’s only as divided as we let it be.

Through the efforts of Gray, INCA-RSVP, Thompson and The Thompson Tee, countless other unnamed churches, organizations and individuals, I see how connected we all are. And it makes me smile and cry and laugh all at once. Who would have guessed that a conversation about sweaty armpits, of all things, would bring so many people together?

That shared humanity unites us. And it’s a beautiful thing.

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