For many women and girls, a monthly visit from Aunt Flo is a minor inconvenience, easily managed by products we buy off supermarket shelves. But for women and girls around the world who have to worry about their basic needs of food, water and shelter, managing a period is likely to fall low on the priority list.
After recently attending a Great Conversations puberty class, April Haberman and her daughter — both Edmonds residents — wondered if there were programs that provided feminine products to homeless women or women in poverty. Haberman began asking experts in the area about what options were available to them. Everyone she asked told her that there simply is not a local program serving this purpose.
“I said, ‘No, no there has to be some organization that is helping girls,’ but there’s nothing,” Haberman said. “These girls end up missing school or wearing tampons longer than they should. That started us on a rampage.”
She posted her concern on the Edmonds Moms Facebook page, and one of the other members told her about Days for Girls, an international grassroots non-profit organization that has made reproductive health awareness, education and sustainable feminine hygiene its mission.
Celeste Mergens, executive director of Days for Girls, founded the organization when she was preparing to travel to Kenya to work with orphanages and communities. She awoke one night wondering what these girls did for feminine hygiene. When she asked the director of the orphanage, she was told that the girls simply wait in their rooms, lying on a piece of cardboard. Mergens knew these girls needed a solution, but the task of raising $200 per month to buy disposable products for about 500 people seemed impossible.
“And even if I could get the funds raised, if I sent money for pads and these women needed food, they would buy food,” she said.
So she opted to design a reusable pad and distribute them in a kit. Each kit contains two shields, eight liners, one travel-size bar of soap, one pair of panties, a cloth drawstring tote bag, a washcloth and two gallon-size Ziploc bags to store and wash used liners. A girl would take one to three liners, depending on her needs, fold them in three and insert them into the shield. The shield functions like the wings on a maxi pad and snaps securely into place. Each component of the kit is washable will last about three years.
Since the liners are flannel squares, they do not look like pads to someone who is unfamiliar with these reusable kits, so women and girls can wash them and lay them out to dry in public places without worrying about taboos or feeling embarrassed. Carrying them in a pretty tote bag makes them feel like an accessory to many of the girls using them.
“It’s a dignity piece,” Haberman said. “We want girls to maintain their dignity, and now they don’t have to see a counselor with their hand out, asking for something so personal.”
Days for Girls now operates in over 60 countries around the world.
“Today, we’re training ambassadors of women’s health, so they will go on to teach women in other nations and girls here not to be ashamed of their periods or their bodies,” Mergens said.
By the time Haberman had contacted Mergens about distributing kits in Edmonds, Days for Girls had already been passing out kits in the United States, but she still found the call shocking.
“Let’s be honest, if there’s need in Edmonds, Wash., the need is everywhere,” Mergens said. “Any family that has to choose between food and pads, they’re not going to choose pads, and that includes Edmonds and every community in the USA, all over the world, everywhere.”
Since starting her local branch in August, Haberman has distributed approximately 120 kits to girls in need around Edmonds, through outlets such as the Edmonds School District, the Cocoon House in Everett and local food banks. She has also cultivated a group of volunteers — ranging from ages 9 to 70 — to sew and distribute the kits.
“There are girls who are just entering that stage of life and women who don’t need these products anymore,” she said. “To get them working together for the same issue has been remarkable.”
These products are not only good for girls in need, however. Being both pretty and reusable, the kits are a green, cost-effective option for the environmentally conscious, but many don’t know that this is an option. Education and outreach are also particularly important to Haberman,so she enlisted the help of Julie Metzger, co-founder of the Great Conversations classes that Haberman had attended with her daughter before founding the Edmonds branch of Days for Girls.
Metzger now teaches her students about Days for Girls and the reusable kits, and has found that the environmental aspect of these products intrigues her students in Seattle and in the Bay area of California.
“The colors, the design, the thought, the fabric, the fact that it feels and looks inviting and special versus ordinary and bland, I could see someone thinking ‘I like this,’ and not feeling embarrassed by it but empowered by it,” Metzger said. “I think they’re lovely, and I think there’s something about that that is really thoughtful and honoring.”
Great Conversations seeks to create a fun experience for children and their attending parent so that they can walk away from the class with a new, refreshed attitude toward puberty and sex and can talk about these topics together without feeling awkward. Metzger is currently trying to find a way to integrate Days for Girls into her lessons to create enough interest among her students, so that they will want to contribute in a way that benefits themselves and someone else in need.
Metzger said she considers herself a “giant supporter” of the mission of Days for Girls and is glad to see a branch in the Northwest.
“April is a real gift to Days for Girls,” she said. “Celeste has all the right ideas but you have to have a team of doers. April is a doer.”
Haberman’s daughter and her friends are also supporting Days for Girls through their Children Who Care club. On April 12, the club will host a charity event called Dessert for Days. The event is already sold out, but the club is still accepting donations of raffle items and desserts to benefit Days for Girls.
— By Natalie Covate