Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

It’s late May in Calgary, and Celeste Mergens, the founder of Days for Girls, is capping off a remarkable month.

She has just flown from Australia to Canada to attend back-to-back events honoring her 10-year-old nonprofit, which provides reusable sanitary pads and economic opportunities to women in poor communities. The number of volunteers for Days for Girls now tops 50,000 in more than 1,000 chapters in 70 nations. And Meghan Markle, the new Duchess of Sussex, has just given a powerful voice to the issue of menstrual health, highlighting it in her royal biography and encouraging everyone to avoid period shaming.

“We are growing exponentially,” Mergens says. “This is the day we worked for.”

All About Those Periods

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Celeste Mergens.

Founded in 2008, Days for Girls is one of a number of nonprofits that seeks to destigmatize menstruation and provide access to sanitary products so that girls can continue to attend school when they have their periods. In India, 23% percent of girls drop out of school because they lack access to toilets and sanitary pads. In rural Nepal, girls are sent to live in small, isolated sheds while menstruating. And in Ethiopia, a study found that 56% of girls were absent from school specifically because they did not have a sanitary pad.

Days for Girls came about after Mergens traveled to the slums outside Nairobi, Kenya, while doing humanitarian work for a family foundation. After visiting an overcrowded orphanage, she emailed the assistant director, asking what girls did for feminine hygiene. “It turned out that they would sit on a piece of cardboard for days,” she says. “I knew we needed to change that.”

[Related: This London Startup is Tackling Period Problems]

A Pressing Need

It took Mergens more than a few tries to figure out how to best address the problem. At first, she approached a non-governmental organization and asked for donations of disposable pads for about 500 girls at the orphanage. She soon learned there was no place to properly dispose of the pads. “The chain fence adjacent to the latrines was filled with disposed-of pads that were rolled up in every little link of the chain link,” she says.

The next idea was to create a reusable white pad. “Volunteers sewed this first design,” Mergens says. “Three of them sewed till their fingertips bled.” While the basic idea was a good one, the pads didn’t fit well — and worse, after washing, they showed stains. “The girls explained how taboo it was to hang anything out menstrual-related,” Mergens says. She and her volunteers came up with a trifold, washable pad made with colorful fabrics, which look more like washcloths. “We kept listening, and the design today is actually patented,” she says.

Working with a small group of volunteers, which soon became an army, Mergens began distributing kits — containing washable pads, panties, a washcloth and soap — to girls in Kenya. The work soon spread to other parts of Africa and Asia.

Ten years later, the organization works all across the globe, including the U.S. “We got a call first from New Orleans,” Mergans says. “Communities and schools group said, ‘You are talking about over there, but we have this need.’” In New Orleans alone, an estimated 3,200 girls lack adequate feminine-care supplies. The group also supplies products to U.S. prisons.

[Related: Read about an African nonprofit that supplies reusable menstrual pads]

A Personal Connection

For Mergens, the work has special significance. She herself comes from difficult circumstances. Born in Oklahoma to a family that faced poverty, she spent time living in a car and often went without food. She also was abused. And at age 7, she was raped. “Having been through that, I know how easy it is for us to blame ourselves,” she says. “And to leave feeling more vulnerable and absolutely tainted by it.”

In Kenya, shortly after Mergens began distributing the first kits in 2008, she learned that many girls were being sexually exploited in return for disposable pads. “They explained, ‘thank you so much, because before you came, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room or go to class,’” Mergans says. That was “the price they were paying for our silence around menstruation.” That realization cemented Mergens’ commitment to Days for Girls.

Critical to the organization’s work is education to remove the shame, stigma and silence around menstruation. In places like Nepal, girls are told “you’ll bring ill fortune, that you are untouchable, that people will become ill if you’re anywhere around them,” Mergens says.

Volunteers are equipped with a curriculum to explain the body’s natural function. Simply talking about periods is a huge step forward in many cultures. “These Days for Girls kits become a doorway to brand new conversations,” Mergens says. It’s an “opportunity to talk about things that were completely off the table before.

A Turn in the Spotlight

Days for Girls is not the only organization committed to menstrual health management, but each take a slightly different approach. In Mozambique, for instance, the nonprofit Wamina provides low-cost, reusable sanitary pads, and hosts menstrual health workshops. In India, the Myna Mahila Foundation employs local women to manufacture sanitary pads and sell them door to door in Mumbai’s slums.

Myna Mahila is one of seven charities recently chosen by the Duchess of Sussex, a.k.a. Meghan Markle, to receive donations from her wedding to Britain’s Prince Harry. Days for Girls is already benefiting from the spotlight on menstrual health. “It is huge she did that, on so many levels,” Mergens says. “We are really grateful. This means we’ll just get there faster.”

In terms of the competitive landscape, Days for Girls believes its organization is different from others because of its two-pronged approach to tackling the issue. Aside from volunteers who distribute kits, Days for Girls also trains women to make and sell menstrual-health products and provide education in their own communities. The group researches supply-chain options in various countries, to keep costs as low as possible. “It’s like the Avon ladies of menstrual hygiene,” Mergens says. The enterprise model is currently operating in 14 countries, and women who sell the kits (wearing bright orange Days for Girls uniforms) make wages that allow them to pay for food or send children to school.

“We do a lot of looking at best practices of other organizations, and ask them what’s working for them,” Mergens says. “I wish I knew of an organization doing it this way.” She estimates that Days for Girls has already helped over one million girls through its kits, which last up to 3 years, and believes the enterprise model will ensure that girls and women have long-term access to menstrual-care products.  

“Our goal is to reach every girl, everywhere, period,” Mergens says. “There are so many things that are hard to change in this world. This isn’t one of them.”

Read Full Transcript

Celeste: All over the world, stigma, shame, lack of access to education. Just a few of the prices women pay, even here in the United States, because we haven't been able to talk about something we're ashamed to say. Periods happen, and without menstruation there would be no people.

TEXT: Celeste Mergens – Founder + CEO – Days for Girls, Bellingham, Wash.

Celeste: Days for Girls helps girls go to school and women go to work by ensuring they have the feminine care products they can count on month after month.

TEXT: Celeste learned about challenges millions of women face when she was doing volunteer work in Africa.

Celeste: I would drop by whenever I was in Kenya, about every six months, to an orphanage in one of the largest slums in the world. I just fell in love with these kids and wanted to help. One morning I asked what the girls were doing for feminine hygiene. The second-in-command there said only this, "Nothing. They wait in their rooms." It turned out that they would sit on a piece of cardboard for days, and I knew we needed to change that. I would like to say that’s when Days for Girls was born but instead for me that was when I was aware of an issue.

TEXT: Celeste was raised in a family scarred by poverty and abuse.

Celeste: There were times that I went without food, and lived in our car. There's a photo of my siblings and it never occurred to me that I was the stepdaughter in the bunch. I didn't understand why I would take the brunt of violence, but I was the oldest and so I would stand up for them.

TEXT: For Celeste school was an escape from home.

TEXT: She wanted to be an electrical engineer.

TEXT: But she dropped out of her first year at Brigham Young University when she was overwhelmed by a family crisis.

Celeste: My stepfather disowned me legally. Who has that happen in this day and age? I really am fortunate to have survived those weeks and months. It was in those weeks that I was introduced to my biological father.

TEXT: Celeste’s father helped her put her life together again.

TEXT: And then, in 1981 she met Don Mergens.

Celeste: From the beginning, he just worked at sweeping me off my feet. He's an extraordinary human being. And right now, we've been married for over 30 years.

TEXT: While raising six children, Celeste did volunteer work.

TEXT: In 2005 she began to work on education and health projects in Kenya.

TEXT: And then learned that the girls had no access to menstrual care products.

Celeste: I just wanted to help. And so my first thought was disposable because that’s what I was accustomed to. I hadn't thought of the fact that they had no place to throw it away. So the pit latrines were stopped. The chain-link fence adjacent to the latrines was filled with disposed of pads that were rolled up in every little link of the chain-link.

TEXT: Celeste worked with friends to design washable, reusable pads.

Celeste: They started out white because pads are white, and we learned really quickly that that didn't work, because who of us would want to hang a stained pad in our front yard to dry? The girls explained how taboo it was to hang anything out menstrual related.

SOT: And this is how you make a pad not look like a pad. If the color makes you smile, it’s the right color.

Celeste: It was right after that that they'd just gotten their first kits, and they explained, “Thank you so much, because before you came, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room or go to class.” They were being sexually exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. That, for me, was the moment Days for Girls was born.

TEXT: Celeste started Days for Girls in November 2008.

TEXT: In response to feedback from the girls, she and volunteers worked continuously to improve the kits.

SOT: They get two shields, a bar of soap, eight liners, a pair of
underwear, an insert, a wash cloth.

Celeste: Soon we had more and more requests. I made the patterns available all along the way on the website, to share with people openly how they too could be involved.

TEXT: By 2011, Days for Girls had chapters in Africa and Asia.

TEXT: Volunteers make the kits and distribute them.

Celeste: When I first heard about this need in the U.S., I have to admit, I was surprised, though I had experienced it myself. We got a call first from New Orleans, communities and schools group had called and said, “We have an estimated 3,200 girls that are going without adequate feminine care supplies.”

TEXT: In many countries, women have set up small businesses to make and sell the kits.

Celeste: These enterprises are a way for them to replicate the money-making just enough to pay for the products and to cover a living wage for those who are making sure they get out into the field.

TEXT: Days for Girls has 11 paid staff coordinating more than 50,000 volunteers in 70 countries.

Celeste: We have an army of people moving the movement forward to recognize that menstruation matters and that we can have this issue be managed all over our planet.

SOT: In this packet is a gift for you that will help you with your period.

TEXT: Days for Girls has helped over 1 million girls.

Celeste: Our goal is to reach every girl, everywhere, period. There are so many things that are hard to change in this world. This isn't one of them. This is something we can change.