Many women can relate to what happened to Leslie Roy.
Eight years ago, while on a mission trip to the slums of Kampala, Uganda, with St. David’s Episcopal Church in Radnor Township, Roy unexpectedly got her menstrual period. With no nearby stores, the Tredyffrin Township woman had to ask fellow travelers for sanitary supplies. The entire experience left her wondering what the local women do when they have their periods.
“There’s no way they have products,” thought Roy, now 60, a mother of three adult girls.
It was a big problem, she was told: Menstruating women were using old rags — if they could find them — and young girls simply stayed home from school during their periods. In the slums, where a family lives on about $40 a month, the $2 to $5 cost for a pack of disposable pads was prohibitive.
The experience led Roy to Days for Girls, an international nonprofit dedicated to providing sustainable menstrual kits and health-education materials to women and girls across the globe. It was founded in 2008 by Celeste Mergens, of Bellingham, Wash., who learned while volunteering at a Kenyan orphanage that women and girls were sitting on pieces of cardboard during their period. There are now more than 330 Days for Girls chapters in the United States, about 10 of them in the Philadelphia region.
Roy teamed up with Teresa Marlino, an ob-gyn at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Bethlehem, to start a team at St. David’s, where both attend. They christened their chapter the Project Ensonga Sewing Ministry.
The whirrrrrr of the team’s busy sewing machines can be heard long before one reaches the bright basement room at St. David’s, where about a dozen team members cut, iron, and sew the colorful fabrics into washable, reusable sanitary products.
The team has about 100 core volunteers, many of whom work from home. Not all are connected with the church, and not all sew.
“This group goes well beyond St. David’s," said Marlino.
Since 2016, about 600 people — including those from area public and private schools and universities, corporations, other churches, hospitals, companies, and the Great Valley Girl Scouts — have helped assemble more than 2,200 kits that have been delivered to more than a dozen countries.
The women follow the sewing patterns honed though trial and error by Mergens’ team, which then set uniform standards for the products. Materials must be new — 100% cotton or flannel — and a particular brand of plastic snaps must be used as well as a polyurethane laminate fabric that creates a moisture barrier.
Even the designs on the fabrics are scrutinized.
There can be no patterns with eyes, patriotic designs, printed words, camouflage, or animals that might be considered sacred in another country.
But there are still "plenty of bright fun things you can use,” said Roy. The materials are all designed to last for a minimum of three years. Most of the supplies are purchased with gift cards from Jo-Ann Stores, Marshall Dry Goods, and Mook Fabrics in Canada.
“And, [we get] lots of donations from quilters,” said Alison Gershman, a member of the Days for Girls chapter based in Eagleville but who was volunteering with the St. David’s team on a recent day.
The menstrual kit has evolved in the years since it was conceptualized and now contains eight reusable pads, two waterproof liners, two pairs of underwear, a washcloth, soap, two water bags for washing and storage, and a colorful drawstring sack to hold the supplies.
“The bag doubles as a backpack,” said Gershman.
The kits also come with printed educational material about the ordinariness of menstruation, since women in some societies feel shame about having a period, or may not even now why they are bleeding.
“It’s a normal, natural, healthy process that happens with your body,” said Marlino, who hopes the information will help women feel good about their bodies.
Volunteer Eileen Kraft, 55, of Wayne was able to see firsthand the difference that menstrual products can make in the lives of women when she took part in a St. David’s mission to a Guatemalan village impacted by the eruption of the Fuego volcano. The homes were concrete block and had no running water, and many of villagers had lost their jobs as a result of the volcano.
“People were surviving on almost nothing,” she said. “You know they’re probably not spending money on napkins or sanitary goods.”
A smaller Days for Girls chapter operates under the umbrella of the Phoenixville Area Time Bank, whose members can earn time hours for their volunteer efforts. The group gathers on a regular basis to sew, which fits in with the group’s social justice mission, said group leader Jeanne Reese.
“If we educate women, we will change the world,” said Reese. “This gives them a shot.”
Reese and other Days for Girls volunteers are not the only people bringing attention and relief to the plight of women who lack access to sanitary supplies.
University of Pennsylvania student Claire Sliney won a 2019 Academy Award for the her documentary Period. End of Sentence, which she executive produced. It profiled the girls and women in a rural Indian village who make inexpensive sanitary pads in an effort to dispel the stigma surrounding menstruation. The movie was inspired by The Pad Project, founded by Sliney when she was a Los Angeles high schooler, which helped raise money for a low-tech machine that the Indian women used to make sanitary products for other women.
And Period.org, founded in 2014 by two 16-year-old Oregon high school students, is now a national group that provides free sanitary supplies in public schools, shelters, and prisons. The nonprofit is also lobbying to end the luxury tax applied to menstrual products in more than 30 states.
Days for Girls and their teams help train women in the countries to make and sell the products for a nominal price. The goal is to provide jobs that help support the local economy, said Roy.