By Amy Flowers Umble The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
Traveling on a bumpy road to a remote Burundian village, Julia Desilets could see the challenges students faced getting to school.
While visiting the African school her parents helped create, Desilets discovered that students often walked miles through jungles, past wild animals and over rocky paths for the opportunity to learn.
On her flight home, Desilets learned of another obstacle for about half of the student body: girls' monthly periods.
The Spotsylvania County resident sat next to a stranger who had flown to Africa to distribute feminine supplies. The woman told Desilets that girls often miss about 180 schooldays in three years because they must stay home while menstruating.
Desilets hadn't thought about periods while touring the school for teenagers.
"It doesn't occur to us because we can go to CVS and pick up the supplies we need for our monthly cycles, but they can't do that," Desilets said.
The stranger on the plane worked with a Washington state-based organization called Days for Girls, which provides reusable sanitary supplies for female students across the globe. The group didn't have a distribution center in Burundi, but members could help Desilets learn how to make the supplies.
Desilets contacted someone from the Burundian school and learned that the feminine supplies were desperately needed. She couldn't sew a button, but Desilets was determined to get the supplies crafted.
She began a sewing circle, recruiting other members of local Catholic parishes, and started the efforts last fall.
The patterns and instructions came from Days for Girls, which began in 2008 when Celeste Mergens was helping an orphanage in Kenyan slums.
While helping staff find sustainable ways to feed and clothe 1,400 children, Mergens asked a simple question: What do the girls do during their time of the month?
The answer: Nothing.
While menstruating, girls spent four to five days sitting on pieces of cardboard in their rooms. Some would get creative, using anything they could find to stop the flow. But the leaves, newspaper pages, corn husks and bark weren't sanitary, and the girls often suffered painful infections.
Many dropped out of school after missing too many days.
Mergens was determined to help, and raised money for disposable supplies. But those discarded supplies soon dotted chain-link fences and clogged latrines.
So she turned to hand-sewn, reusable supplies, made by volunteers. Three of the first women sewed until their fingertips bled, Mergens said in a global, non-profit TED talk.
Over the years, the organization has changed the patterns some, to better meet the girls' needs. For example, they learned to use colorful fabric and have tweaked the patterns to create pads that could be washed in the least amount of water possible.
The organization now offers patterns for panty shields and absorbent pads, which Mergens calls "colorful, absorbent six-layer miracles."
And the supplies have been changing lives, said Lora Moren, Days for Girls director of operations.
In one school, the dropout rate for girls went from 25 percent to 3 percent within a year of receiving the supplies, Moren said.
"We don't have to wait 10 years for a study to come out to see this working," she said.
Desilets hoped to see those results in the Burundian school. The work has been slow, with each kit requiring six hours of labor. Since September, the sewing circle has created five full kits. Each includes a bar of soap, a pair of underwear, a washcloth, two panty-size shields, eight liners and a drawstring bag.
The women create the supplies in an assembly-line fashion. Material is measured and cut, then sewn into the various pieces. Once the women finish the first 25 kits, Desilets plans to send them to the school. And then she and the other women will turn on their sewing machines and start crafting replacement kits.