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‘Days for Girls’ keeps Africans in class during periods

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With the help of Days for Girls, more girls in Mali are able to attend school while on their periods. (Photo courtesy Days for Girls)

With the help of Days for Girls, more girls in Mali are able to attend school while on their periods. (Photo courtesy Days for Girls)

Ann Lewis is no small-town girl. She has lived in Africa and traveled internationally on her own and with her husband, John Lewis (Associate Advancement VP at BYU).

So last year when this Provo mother became aware of Days for Girls (an international organization that creates feminine hygiene supplies), Ann already knew the incredible value worldwide.

“I wrote about it on my blog and said, ‘Everybody I know should be doing this,’” Ann says. Her LDS ward hosted an activity to sew and compile kits with fabric liners, soap, shields, washcloths and underwear.

“These African girls are unable to attend school when they are having their period,” Ann says. “They don’t have supplies — they must stay at home and use feathers, cardboard, stones or newspapers.”

When these teenage girls miss a week of school every month, they begin to fall behind. Their options are limited — many of them drop out of school and marry young.

“But a girl who can stay in school raises her family’s educational quotient, and she feels stronger in her community and is able to raise her voice,” Ann says.

Now Ann and the other founding members of the Utah Valley Chapter of Days for Girls are increasing the quality of life for their sisters across the globe. By staying in school, the girls have increased self-esteem and they are less likely to be exploited by men in the village.

Ann Lewis finds joy in teaching African women — and learning from them, too.  (Photo courtesy Days for Girls)

Ann Lewis finds joy in teaching African women — and learning from them, too. (Photo courtesy Days for Girls)

In fact, solving the feminine hygiene equation has social and economic benefits.

Which is where this project has its roots and branches.

Celeste Mergens, founder of Days for Girls based in the Seattle area, was working to reduce poverty and implement sustainable solutions in Third World countries. A flash of inspiration told her a big piece of the puzzle was feminine hygiene.

Her first solution was disposable supplies, but they couldn’t be disposed of properly in Kenya. Monetary donations intended for feminine supplies would be used to buy food if the women had the choice. Gradually, Celeste created a nonprofit organization — and a sewing pattern. Now she is mobilizing thousands of women (including 130 chapters worldwide) in putting together the kits. And Utah is a big part of her equation.

“Utah is phenomenal,” says Celeste during her visit to the Utah Valley Chapter of Days for Girls (with a stop at the Utah Valley Magazine offices). “The women in this community are extraordinarily aware of the people in the world.”

With Ann at the forefront, the Utah Valley Chapter has put together thousands of kits since its inception in late 2013. This summer alone, 14 LDS girls camps in Utah County have chosen Days for Girls as their service project.

“The women in Utah County are showing the rest of the world how it’s done,” Celeste says.

Celeste and Ann feel somewhat like “mission companions” as they have tunnel vision for getting kits made and distributed efficiently. Ann hand-delivers feminine hygiene kits whenever possible.

“Last Thanksgiving, we took a suitcase full of kits to Mali, and the women and girls were overwhelmed,” Ann says. “I told them I would come back and bring more.”

Now Ann’s days are full of speaking to local groups who want to know how to turn their excitement for Days for Girls into a tangible finished product. She also travels worldwide to coordinate delivery of kits and teach girls how to keep themselves clean. She fits all of this in despite teaching a full schedule of family history classes, being philanthropically involved with other organizations, and being a mother to her three children.

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