Reusable Pads Help Change a Culture
A less than one-square-foot piece of fabric is changing the lives of women worldwide as they cope with their menstrual periods in Third World countries. And much of the help is coming from a Bellingham based group called Days for Girls, which also has a chapter in Anacortes.
The non-profit organization was founded in 2008 by Celeste Mergens of Lynden who saw the need for feminine hygiene kits while she was working with a family foundation in Kenya. Today, the group—with a core leadership team of 20—has volunteers in more than 100 chapters nationwide making these kits that have helped an estimated 1 million women in over 110 countries.
While in Kenya, Mergens questioned what girls did during their periods, and the answer didn’t sit well with her. Oftentimes, she learned, they sat in their rooms, using cardboard or straw to soak up the blood, and they missed days of school. Mergens wanted a way forward for the girls. She began with disposable feminine kits, but without a proper waste management system the idea faltered. Reusable, washable kits was the way to go.
Volunteers meet regularly to sew reusable pads that are then shipped off to countries in need. Director of the Anacortes chapter, Carol Olsen, explained they went through 28 redesigns. “One of the early designs was cut similarly to a sanitary napkin’s shape, which embarrassed the girls,” so the liners never were properly washed or dried. The current square designs look like ordinary wash cloths.
During monthly meetings, Olsen’s workspace is abuzz with activity. Volunteers form a sort of assembly line of cutting and sewing. At the heart of the kits are square-cut patterned cotton flannel liners that are thicker in the middle. They are inserted into laminate shields which are then fastened with rustproof plastic snaps. The group makes batches of each part to make the work faster, but, from cutting to finished product, it takes about eight to 10 hours to create a single kit. A runner then picks up the kits and delivers them to another runner at the airport. On the day of my visit, 100 kits were picked up for delivery to the country of Jordan via SeaTac.
The Anacortes chapter has about 75 active members, including one who drives up from Everett. Some women take sewing home, non-sewers contribute by assembling packages of fabric to be ready for sewing, like the kit’s drawstring carrying bag. Upon hearing the Days for Girls mission, the women all felt called to help build kits.
But it’s more than just the kits, said Kathy McKenzie, the chapter’s informal assistant director. “Education is just as important as kits.” Days for Girls spearheads efforts for proper women’s health education in countries where the subject has been taboo for far too long. This education is spurring a slow cultural shift towards acceptance of the female body and its functions.
In the meantime, Olsen and her team of volunteers will continue making kits. Donations are always welcome, especially dark-colored patterned quilting fabric, sewing supplies, and girls’ underwear. Each reusable kit lasts for three years.