After being escorted by the Secret Service through a side door to the Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Celeste Mergens couldn’t help but think, “How did I get here?”
As one of 20 women honored for their achievements and example of leadership worldwide at the “Hear Her Song” event, Celeste Mergens found herself counted alongside Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former First Lady Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others.
“It was just wonderful,” said Mergens’ husband, Don Mergens. “From out of the whole nation for them to choose Celeste is just … well she deserves it because I see what she does all over the world, and she doesn’t ever try to call attention to herself … but this is an LDS woman who is making a huge difference in the world.”
Mergens, the founder of the non-profit organization Days for Girls (DfG) that has a presence in 120 countries across six continents of the world, has been able to change the lives of more than 1 million women and girls worldwide. She has received a number of awards and honors for her work, including a major donation as one of the 2017 AARP Purpose Prize winners, and, most recently, by the Women Like Us Foundation during the event in D.C. She has revolutionized the way women around the world understand and manage their monthly menstruation and has changed the way women are viewed and treated in many societies.
“Personally, I rely on my faith every day to do this,” Mergens explained in a recent interview with the Church News. “I could not do the schedule that I keep if not for being upheld in it. And I find that being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has meant that I absolutely know that we are all important; that every child, every person, matters equally in the sight of the Lord. I have no question about it.”
Speaking of the work Mergens does, Camille Olson, who has traveled and worked with Mergens in her efforts with DfG, said, “Every time I’m with her, I’m blown away by the way miracles follow her. Her prayers are so intense and so real, and she gets direction.”
And judging by the way Mergens describes how she was inspired to begin her work with DfG, Olson’s description is pretty accurate.
In 2007, Kenya was experiencing a crisis following political upheaval and Celeste Mergens was among many humanitarians working to help solve development issues in the country. With nearly half a million people displaced and in need of food, blankets and clothing — Mergens spent many nights worrying how she could help provide solutions to the problems the country was facing.
“I experienced poverty as a child, so I know what it’s like to go without food for days,” Celeste Mergens explained. But feeling at a loss for how she could best help the people in Kenya, Mergens described how one night she went to bed pleading to the Lord to know what she could do to truly help them. “So imagine my surprise when I woke up at 2:30 in the morning with it going through my head, ‘Have you asked the girls what they’re doing for feminine hygiene?’ And it had never occurred to me to ask that question even once.”
Acting on her prompting, she ran to her computer and emailed her contacts to find out the answer. And surprisingly, she received an immediate response.
“The answer was that they would wait in their rooms,” Mergens said. “It turned out they would sit on a piece of cardboard for days. There were 500 girls sitting on cardboard that they could scrounge up to sit on for days, going without what they needed and importantly, unable to leave to go to class.”
This realization was the tipping point, Mergens explained. In that moment, Days for Girls was born, and it has been evolving and expanding ever since.
Recognizing the limitations of sustainable solutions for dealing with feminine hygiene in many parts of the world, DfG has focused on listening to the needs of each culture and country to develop kits that meet women’s needs.
“[Days for Girls] addresses something that frees and strengthens girls and women on a very foundational level,” Olson said. “By doing this, you really start changing the world and you can make a change happen instantaneously. From the moment they get one of those pads and learn how to take care of it, it’s a new life for that girl, for that woman. It changes right there.”
From its origins in Kenya, to its most recent integration into communities in Nepal, DfG continues to provide resources for women around the world. Additionally, the organization has developed curriculum that educates both men and women about their anatomy and the value they hold within society. Since the organization’s founding in 2008, they have developed more that 28 versions of the kits and gone through more than 60 revisions of their educational curriculum for men and women.
“We’re very sensitive to the cultural differences, but this is pretty universally taboo around the world,” Mergens said. “When I come into a community, I never feel like I am the only one that has a gift to bring. I know that I can learn from their wisdom and that is reflected in our kit design, in our curriculum, in how we work together.”
She explained that although DfG tailors their approach for education according to the needs of each culture and country, their purpose is always the same.
“This is about freedom, dignity and opportunity. This is about recognizing that we all matter,” Mergens said. “We get to say, let’s celebrate these amazing bodies we have and that you can be safe and healthy and that you matter. You’re not someone that should be isolated or made a stigma because of your basic biology.”
By educating men and women about their importance as individuals and breaking the social barriers that separate them, Don Mergens explained that DfG offers a chance for women and girls to gain back what they have lost through years of misunderstood stigmas about menstruation.
“They feel liberated,” Don Mergens said. “The meaning of Days for Girls is giving their days back so that they won’t get behind in school and in their work at home and with their children. And it’s breaking the stigma.”
And despite challenges and stigmas regarding women and menstruation in many parts of the world, Olson said Mergens doesn’t let anything stand in her way when it comes to educating people and changing the narrative of women.
“Leaders and presidents of countries open their doors for her. … There are chieftains that are waiting, almost praying, for what she has to offer.” Men don’t usually “open their doors” to discussing the issues surrounding feminine hygiene, Olsen said. But with Mergens, they do.
But Mergens doesn’t believe she is alone in her ability to break down such barriers. Speaking of members of the Church, Mergens said, “When you tell them that our goal is every girl everywhere. Period. They say, ‘OK.’ Other people go, ‘That’s not possible, don’t be ridiculous, set an achievable goal.’ But you will not hear that from a Relief Society.”
Although DfG as an organization purposefully remains unaffiliated with any religious or governmental entity, Mergens is proud to share her own connection with the Church. And despite her rising fame and worldly recognition, she isn’t afraid to share with people the source from which she derives her strength and direction.
“I have no question that anything is possible if we rely on the Lord,” she said. “I rely on that every day, and I know whose mission I’m on.”
The Church News is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The publication's content supports the doctrines, principles and practices of the Church.