Meet the Nonprofit That’s Absolutely Fed Up With Period Stigmas and Menstrual Huts

Around the world, millions of girls miss school because of feelings of shame or lack of access to sanitary products. Celeste Mergens of Days for Girls is on a mission to change that.

By Christina Kelly

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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.

Posted: June 18, 2018

Christina KellyMeet the Nonprofit That’s Absolutely Fed Up With Period Stigmas and Menstrual Huts