Celeste Mergens
Photo: Kayte Reagan
In October 2008 after more than a year spent working with a Kenyan orphanage, Celeste Mergens dashed off an e-mail that would change her life. "I'd thought so much about how to help those girls get food, water, textbooks, and cooking stoves," says Mergens, "but until then I'd never asked what they use for their periods." The stunning reply: "Nothing. Most stay in their rooms and sit on cardboard."

Mergens rushed to spread the word, collected donations, and bought disposable pads for the 500 girls. But the orphanage had nowhere to properly discard the used pads. So Mergens came up with a better idea. "Friends and I started sewing immediately—a few sewed until their fingertips bled," she says. "And three weeks later, we had made enough reusable pads for all the girls."

Soon after, Mergens, now 51, founded Days for Girls International , a grassroots network of thousands of sewing volunteers who create kits of washable cotton pads (which last up to three years) and underwear. Groups like the Peace Corps have helped the kits reach more than 60,000 girls and women in 61 countries. "They no longer have to use leaves or corn husks or isolate themselves and miss school or work," says Mergens, who is based in Lynden, Washington.

Mergens travels to Africa a few times a year to collaborate with sewing collectives and train "health ambassadors," who educate girls on the often-taboo topics of menstruation, reproduction, and refusing unwanted sex. "In a Zimbabwean classroom once, a sigh of relief spread through the room after we said that having a period is not a curse! If there were no periods, there would be no people." But girls in developing nations aren't the only ones who need Mergens's help. The latest city to approach her organization? New Orleans.



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