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LDS World: Days for Girls is changing girls' lives around the world

Published: Sunday, July 20 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Sarah Adams of Australia gives kits to girls in Madagascar

Celeste Mergens, Days for Girls International

Celeste Mergens has discovered that a $10 contribution or contributing a few hours time can infinitely transform a woman’s life and provide her lifelong opportunity and dignity.

Mergens was trained in global sustainable development and found her “calling in life” when she began working with a non-governmental organization that partnered to improve conditions in a 400-child orphanage in the corrugated iron slums in Dagoretti, Kenya. Mergens fell in love with the children the first time she saw them and began working to improve living conditions.

She was making great strides. For example, where the orphanage previously spent upwards of $200 a day to cook and prepare meals, Mergens advised and raised funds for the construction of “rocket stoves” that reduced that cost to about $11-12 a day. The extra money could now be used for additional food and other expenses. Mergens envisioned herself doing this long-term.

Then, in 2008, the country was rocked by post-election violence. She got a call from the orphanage alerting her that not only had the orphanage swollen to 1,400 children, but they had been two days without food.

It was unimaginable. The rooms already held bunk beds pressed up against each other, with two to three girls sharing one bed. They pleaded for her help.

Mergens, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, went to bed praying to know what to do to get them desperately needed supplies, petitioning and pleading until, overtaken by exhaustion, she fell into fitful sleep.

At 2:30 a.m. she awoke — wide awake — with the question pulsing through her mind: “Have you asked what they are doing for feminine hygiene?” She had never thought to ask. Nevertheless, this simple question would not leave her alone. Surprised, she ran to her computer to inquire, writing orphanage directors to ask how they met feminine hygiene needs.

With computers and the Internet generally accessible only in Internet cafes, she did not expect an immediate response. Yet that is what she got. The reply was: “Nothing.”

She wrote back, asking them to elaborate. The answer came. During menstrual cycles, the girls wait in their room and sit on a piece of cardboard on their bed for three to four days. If they can, they arrange for friends to bring them food and water.

Mergens was stunned.

She searched the computer to see how this condition is addressed globally. She found nothing. She knew this was a cause she had to take up. Initially, she realized the implications. If a girl misses three to seven days a month while menstruating, that translates to up to two months less schooling per year. As a girl falls farther behind, she often fails or leaves school early. In Africa, one additional year of schooling after age 12 dramatically improves the national economy and opens economic doors and opportunity to women. Education and knowledge continue to be key to a better quality of life for people around the globe.

Mergens also knew she could not send money for feminine hygiene products because if there was a need for food or shelter, the girl, her family or the orphanage would choose those things over feminine hygiene products every time. She knew too that she had to be sensitive to local cultures and traditions. So she began searching, experimenting and listening to the women on the ground.

Her first attempt to solve the problem led her to a company that provided disposable feminine pads for $200 for 500 girls for one month. Done. With a trip scheduled, Mergens arrived in Kenya three weeks later to observe results. As wonderful as it was to have pads, she realized that “disposable” in Western countries is possible. In Kenya, the orphanage’s fences were soon lined and stuffed with pads and the pit latrines were quickly clogged. Disposable was not the answer. Insertable hygiene products were also not an option due to cultural prohibitions.

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