Hygiene Project For African Girls Forging Ties Among Seattle Volunteers

By Jack Broom
The Seattle Times.

A project expected to help girls in Africa in January is already paying dividends in the Seattle area.

You can see that if you stop by a twice-monthly session of the Saturday Sewing Sisters at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Central Area.

Several dozen women from a mix of races and ages, a few men and a sprinkling of children get the room humming with activity.

Pieces of colorful fabric, plastic bags, motel-size soaps and moisture-proof liners all get put in handmade drawstring bags.

The group’s tangible product, nearing completion, will be 1,000 feminine-hygiene kits to be taken to Africa and distributed to schoolgirls, who often stay home during their periods, falling behind in their schoolwork.

But organizer LueRachelle Brim-Atkins expects the work to have its greatest impact at home.

“This project cuts across all barriers — race, faith, age, gender, politics, whatever,” Brim-Atkins said.

“I’m a believer that everything happens because of relationships,’ said Brim-Atkins, a management consultant. “My goal has simply been to get people sitting in a room doing something together.”

Ten members of the group, including Brim-Atkins, will travel to Cameroon for two weeks in early January.

Their work on the hygiene kits was inspired and assisted by Day for Girls International, a campaign created in 2008 by a Whatcom County woman, Celeste Mergens. The international organization, according to its website, has reached more than 200,000 girls in 85 countries.

Brim-Atkins, who has made seven other trips to Africa, said she knew about the scarcity of feminine-hygiene products there and brought disposable pads to donate on her last trip. “But those get used once and then they’re thrown away, so you haven’t accomplished much,” she said.

In contrast, the Days for Girls model features reusable flannel pads that can be washed inside the plastic bags with a small soap bar and just a little water, and can last up to three years.

Those who gather for these sewing sessions expect the connections made there to be lasting.

“It’s been life-changing for me,” said Claire Thornburgh, who heard about the group from a friend.

Now, in addition to attending the Saturday sessions at First AME Church, she hosts about a dozen members of the group at Monday sewing sessions at her home in Ballard. “This is absolutely been the most fun project I’ve ever been a part of,” she said.

Working on the hygiene kits has allowed women who barely know one another to talk frankly about what they were told, or not told, when they began menstruation. In those conversations, laughter, tears and nods of recognition can span cultural divides.

Marilyn Calbert, who lives in Lynnwood and takes the bus to downtown Seattle to work, said she has mentioned the project to people she meets on the bus, and a good number have gotten involved or sent donations.

Calbert, a wellness advocate at the YWCA, will be making her first visit to Africa on this mission. She has arranged for the Seattle travelers to meet a YWCA group in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, one of the locations where the kits will be distributed.

Alfreda Lanier, who helped Brim-Atkins organize this group, says that even though the goal of 1,000 kits will likely soon be reached, many of these women will continue sewing because the need is great.

The group hopes to send a delegation back to Africa within a year, with supplies to help people there make these kits themselves.

Although just a few men show up for the work parties, they earn their lunches by doing some of the heavy lifting, and operating tools that put snaps in fabric, which requires a strong hand.

The Rev. Carey Anderson, First AME pastor, stopped by this past Saturday’s session. “The church’s mission is to seek out the hurting, the lost, the left-out, the leftover,” he said. “This is an attempt to live out our mission in its true form.”

Carolyn Carter, a retired teacher, has participated in sewing sessions, even though she has to take two buses to get there.

The journey is complicated by the fact that she has used a wheelchair since 2011 because of a foot injury and health complications.

Even so, Carter said working with the group has her thinking about her abilities, not her disabilities, and she’d like to find ways to get back into schools, promoting multiculturalism.

And she offered this observation about Brim-Atkins, whom she has known for three decades. “She is humble and fun, but she can also be very serious about getting something done.”

Brim-Atkins is president of the Seattle-Limbe (Cameroon) Sister City Association and co-chair of First AME’s Sarah Allen Sisterhood, the church’s women’s ministry.

Other key partners in the sewing effort, she said, have been Renton’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Baptist Church, the Pacific Northwest African American Quilters and Our Fabric Stash, a consignment store in the Pike Place Market
The youngest member of the delegation headed to Cameroon is Brim-Atkins’ granddaughter, NiAni Rashaad, 12. “When people help others, they can learn from each other,” she said.

She’s been told to expect Cameroon to be hot and humid. Her curiosity is high, with one note of reservation. “I’m a person who likes nature,” she said. “But not necessarily bugs.”

The group’s one remaining volunteer work session is 8:30 a.m. Dec. 12 at First AME Church, 1522 14th Ave. The following day, an event to honor those who participated in the project and those who will travel to Cameroon will be held in the church’s Fellowship Hall after the 11 a.m. worship service.

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