Sewing changes lives of women in Third World countries; Days for Girls chapter opens in Madison

MARTHA JOY RICHARDSON (left) and Barb Tornow are two of the women involved in a new local ministry, Days for Girls. The local chapter is part of an international organization which has as its motto: Turning Periods into Pathways.

Travel can be an eye-opening experience, especially if that travel involves helping others in countries with fewer amenities than Americans enjoy. It was just such a trip which led a group of Madison women to take on a ministry to provide girls with menstrual care solutions.

"I knew nothing about Days for Girls until I went to Kenya," said Barb Tornow, who became involved through her involvement with Leah's Kids, another nonprofit. "We were going over to teach sewing."

Days for Girls began in 2008 when founder and CEO Celeste Mergens was helping at an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. She learned the girls would sit on cardboard in their rooms for several days each month because they did not have feminine hygiene products.

"That's where this came from," Tornow reported. "She came home and put into motion making something."

Because there was no place to dispose of pads, Mergens and her team developed a sustainable solution: a washable, long-lasting pad. Over time, with feedback, the design was adapted to meet the cultural and environmental conditions of the communities served.

Today, more than 800 chapters have been started worldwide to sew and donate kits that are distributed in more than 125 countries.

"The exciting news is now there's one in Madison," Tornow announced.

However, she did not envision this turn of events in 2017 when she went to Kenya. At that time, she just saw the need and became involved with the Sioux Falls chapter.

"They met the third Monday of every month from 6 to 8," said Tornow, who would go to Sioux Falls to help sew the kits.

In addition to underwear, which is purchased, the kits include waterproof shields, liners which look like washcloths, a transport bag which can be used to carry dirty liners, and a drawstring bag in which to carry everything. Each piece is made with brightly colored, patterned fabric which will hide staining.

"They put so much care into the idea behind it," said Martha Joy Richardson, a member of the Madison chapter board of directors. "None of it looks like taboo stuff."

The items can be washed and hung out to dry without embarrassment or shame. As a result, women and girls have more dignity and fewer limitations.

In addition to providing kits, Days for Girls provides health education and trains local leaders in the countries served to produce and sell kits. Before COVID-19 hit, Tornow made another mission trip. This time, she went to Guatemala with Monica Demaray.

"They took a group down to teach them to sew these kits," Richardson said.

After they returned, they learned leaders in the Sioux Falls chapter were looking for new hands to take on the work they were doing.

"Their season was done and they wanted to see it move forward," Tornow explained.

That's when a group of Madison women decided to take on the ministry. A seven-member board, including Tornow, Demaray and Richardson, is responsible for running the local chapter. With the support of a generous landlord, who provided space at a nominal fee, they set up shop at 108 S. Egan Ave.

"When they [the Sioux Falls chapter] closed, they donated everything to us," Richardson said.

In the long narrow space, sewing machines are lined up on tables and shelving holds supplies. On the wall, a map of the world reflects the global impact of the work being done.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the board does not feel comfortable scheduling regular gatherings for sewing and packaging kits, but they have developed an approach they feel will be equally successful.

"We have the ability to train people one on one," Richardson said, indicating that individuals will learn how to make one piece and mass produce it. "They don't have to make the whole kit."

Once they learn to make a piece, they can work either in the shop or in their own homes. A board member or volunteer will deliver the materials to those working from home. The goal is to assemble kits which can be sent to international organizations for distribution.

"You don't have to be a sewer to be involved in this organization," Tornow notes.

They need individuals who can cut the pieces, and individuals to put snaps on the shields used to hold the liners. When all the pieces are prepared, they will need individuals to help pack the kits.

In addition, the local chapter of Days for Girls will need donations of supplies such as panties and washcloths. Fund-raising will also be key to the success of the local chapter.

"There is a job for every age and every gender," Richardson said.

Board members intend to staff the shop so individuals can stop by to learn how to help. The group has also set up a Facebook page -- Days for Girls Madison SD Team -- where more information can be found.

"Women need women. Men need men. We need each other," Tornow said, to describe the motivation driving the endeavor.

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