I love making new connections.
I met Dre Thomas a little over a year ago at a #BlackGirlsWhoBlog event at The Wing. Ironically I ended up interviewing Morgan (founder of #BlackGirlsWhoBlog) not too long after, but I had no idea I would be meeting another future Saturday School alumni. As someone who has made mentorship a priority, Dre launched Smile On Me, a non-profit whose mission is to empower every girl to disrupt the status quo and impact the world through education about mental health and feminine care needs.
We sat down and discussed periods, how her mentees have inspired her and what she’s looking forward to in the new year.
Saturday School: I was reading about your organization, and it got me thinking about how everyone has a story about their first period. Kind of a weird question but what was yours? [Laughs]
Dre Thomas: When I first got my period I thought I was peeing on myself [laughs]. First, let’s rewind. No one talked to me about periods when I was growing up so I had no idea. I knew about it, but I didn’t know how it would feel. So when I ran to the bathroom and saw blood, I just got so excited [laughs]. I don’t know why I was so excited because immediately after I started cramping.
SS: That seems so early to get cramps! It took me a whole year before I started getting them!
DT: I had to figure out what to do because I was too shy or scared to ask for a pad. My mom and I had never talked about any of these things so I had a lot of accidents. So I learned the hard way. But for me, my first period was a symbol of growing up and I got to see what it was like to be a woman.
SS: Did that moment inspire you to create Smile On Me?
DT: I wasn’t inspired by that moment in particular. Smile On Me started when I was in 11th grade, when I realized girls in my neighborhood didn’t have access to feminine hygiene products. I initially wanted to donate bras and underwear and pass them out to the girls in the neighborhood.
SS: It’s cool that you were that forward thinking even at that age.
DT: My dream was to have a fulfillment warehouse to provide these products to girls. Similar to Amazon, but specifically for feminine products. I had been massaging this idea for a while and put it to bed once I moved to New York in 2011 but three years ago I started working with girls in East Harlem and Brownsville and realized it’s not just L.A. girls that need this but it’s all girls.
SS: So when did you officially launch?
DT: I started last year (2017) on my birthday! I hosted a birthday party and I asked my friends to bring a feminine hygiene product to donate and that day I got 500 products. After, I reached out to shelters and local non-profits to do classes with girls. That’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do with Smile On Me.
SS: I had no idea it’s only been going on for a year. But that makes sense because when I first met you you mentioned you had just started the organization. So going off of that, I love how you give away products to young girls but do you also educate them?
DT: Yeah, I didn’t want to just drop off the products and leave, I wanted to garner a relationship and give the girls information that I didn’t have. Some girls are afraid to ask these questions at school or at home and a lot of girls go to YouTube for advice but a lot of those videos aren’t truthful so I wanted to provide a space for that.
SS: That’s amazing. How did the mentorship portion come to fruition?
DT: Full-time I work at a non-profit and through that I mentor girls. My job allowed me to get a behind-the-scenes look at what they’re actually going through and after speaking with them I realized girls needed a space to speak with someone about these issues. My sister and I have been trying to develop a curriculum so when I’m speaking to them I’m not just having a chit chat but an engaging but informative talk.
SS: I’ve been a mentor on occasion and I know the goal is to teach them, but how have your mentees taught you?
DT: Honestly I didn’t what I was doing at that age but I was not doing all these great things that they are [laughs]. Last summer we did our first summit, similar to Girlboss Rally or the Teen Vogue Summit and I was doing a photoshoot for it and I asked the girls “what kind of activities do you want to do at the summit?” and one of the girls said “discover something new about myself” and I thought that was so great. Since that moment I didn’t want to just have a “get together” but I wanted to make sure we were talking about mental health, depression during your period, and all of the social and emotional aspects of your period.
I had a panel where girls got to share their stories about how they handled adversities. They taught me a lot about listening more and not just doing things because I think they’re cool, but doing it because it could help someone.
SS: That’s so interesting because I feel like when you’re on your period people are always like “you’re acting crazy” but it’s not like I want to be like this! [laughs]. It’s just something that happens and it definitely happens to me more often than not.
DT: Exactly! I read an article about how you can be really productive while you’re on your period. It says you’re more focused allowing you to get things done and I’m like who are these people!? [laughs].
SS: I am the least productive during that time of the month! I just want to lay down. But going back to the summit, what goal did you want to achieve by hosting the summit?
DT: I went to the 2017 Teen Vogue Summit in L.A. and I thought it was such a great idea until I looked at the ticket price and I was like “who is going to these events?!” So I wanted to create something that was free and available for girls from the local communities to come to. So January of this year (2018) I said I was going to do a summit. My main goal was to try and find a neutral space for all of the girls to meet because I realized that a lot of the girls from Brooklyn or Harlem have never left their borough. Having girls in the same space is just a powerful thing, so I wanted to provide that for girls.
SS: I was looking at the summit on social and it looked really cool. Do you have any other upcoming events?
DT: We just finished our Day of the Girl event. I’m not doing any events for the rest of the year because I’m exhausted but I’m going to make the summit annually.
SS: Oh yeah do you have a team or is it just you?
DT: It’s just me. My friends help when they can but it’s majority me. But the summit is going to be annually so I’m going to start prepping for that in January.
SS: Veering from the summit, mental health is a topic that has been coming up a lot lately. How do you relay certain messages to young girls?
DT: It was a challenge for me because I’m still learning about it as well but I speak primarily about anxiety and depression. It happens to girls a lot when they’re preparing for tests, navigating friendship drama, etc. so I talk about it from that angle. At the summit we all made ‘zines and they wrote down five things they can do when they’re stressed and that helped them to refresh themselves. I was talking to Elyse Fox who started Sad Girls Club and I would love for her to come speak to the girls because she’s more of an expert on mental health.
SS: That’s dope, what have been some of your biggest struggles while running a non-profit?
DT: I think the biggest struggle for me is I want to do so many things but I have to focus on one thing and sticking to it. So it’s just realizing I can’t do it all (which is fine) but focusing on the small moments and not taking them for granted.
SS: I saw you were recently featured in Bumble’s latest campaign! How did that come about?
DT: So I got Bumble three years ago and they emailed me and I thought it was awesome.
SS: Were you a part of Bumble Bizz?
DT: Yeah I was! It was a great experience because I got to meet awesome people who are really doing great things. It was crazy to see my photo in Times Square which I never thought would be a dream of mine.
SS: Did this experience help you get the message about Smile On Me more?
DT: I haven’t seen any of the return [laughs] but I hope the people who saw it Google the organization!
SS: So I creeped on you a little bit.
DT: No you did your research!
SS: [laughs] But I saw you work at Girls Inc. Since Girls Inc. and Smile On Me have similar missions, how did you differentiate the two?
DT: I actually got to work with girls through Girls Inc. and that’s how I learned that there was a need. Girls Inc. doesn’t provide any feminine hygiene products for the girls nor do they talk about mental health but they are getting into that now. But that’s how I bridged the gap between the two.
SS: What advice would you give to someone trying to start their own organization or non-profit?
DT: I would say just do it! I know that’s so lame to say but it took me a long time to get started but I’m glad I finally did it. Whatever keeps you up at night, that’s what you’re called to do and no one can do that but you. Sometimes we compare ourselves but there’s only one you so just start out and go forward with it.
SS: What are some other mental health or wellness organizations for people of color that you think other people should know about?
SS: I agree, I wouldn’t call it a trend but I’m happy black women are being more vocal about it. Even with a lot of the interviews I’ve been doing this year everyone is talking about staying well.
DT: Which is amazing!
SS: So what’s next?
DT: I applied for The Wing pitch competition so I’m waiting to hear back from that. I’ve applied to a lot of pitch things, I don’t know what I’m going to pitch but I need money [laughs].
SS: Last question! If you could say something to high school you, what would you say?
DT: Wow… That I’m doing better than I think I am, and I’m where I need to be.