Celeste A. Mergens (MFAW ’06) of Lynden, Wash., is the executive director and founder of Days for Girls International (www.daysforgirls.org), which was featured in the January 2014 issue of Oprah Magazine.
Global Washington, a Seattle-based organization whose mission is to promote international development by coordinating the efforts of other globally-minded philanthropic, research and business organizations awarded Mergens the 2019 Global Hero Award.
Dustin Byerly: Celeste, could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Celeste Mergens: I was born in Pryor, Oklahoma. My family hails from Sooners, some of them Native American, and had lived in Pryor for many generations. I spent most of my life, however, on the West Coast. I have six children, twelve grandchildren, and have been married to the love of my life for thirty-two years now. I originally went to Brigham Young University for electrical engineering from 1980-81. Following that I founded the Whidbey Island Writer’s Association, was the Director of the Clay Foundation, and Project Thrive from 2006-2011.
DB: How did you find Goddard?
CM: When I was working for the Clay International Secondary School in Kenya, Andrea Leebron-Clay (MFAW ’06, MA SBC ’09) recommended that I apply to Goddard’s MFA in Creative Writing program. I took her advice, started at the Vermont campus, and actually was part of the group that helped to establish the MFAW program in Port Townsend.
DB: What did you study at Goddard?
CM: My thesis was a biographical collection of poetic short stories, which were designed to convey a specific moment in time.
DB: What was your experience at Goddard like?
CM: It was transformative on so many different levels. I found my studies at Goddard to be very personal. My advisors were able to take part in my educational journey while at the same time trusting me to find and take my own path. It was a truly phenomenal educational experience.
DB: In 2008, you founded Days for Girls International. Could you tell us about it?
CM: Days for Girls International is a grassroots 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to creating a more dignified, humane and sustainable world for girls through advocacy, reproductive health awareness and educational programs. We help girls gain access to quality, sustainable feminine hygiene through the direct distribution of sustainable feminine hygiene kits, and by partnering with nonprofits, groups, and organizations, raising awareness, and helping impoverished communities to start their own programs.
DB: What inspired you to establish Days for Girls International?
CM: My work with the Clay School led me to an orphanage in Kenya where I was involved in developing sustainable solutions for their energy needs. During this time, Kenya experienced a wave of ethnic violence that was triggered by a disputed presidential election. As a result, the number of children in the orphanage went from 400 to 1,400. The children were going without food and we had used up all of our resources… I went to sleep one night wishing I could do more. I woke up in the middle of the night wondering, what are the girls doing for feminine hygiene?
The answer was shocking: they don’t do anything. The young girls simply sit on a piece of cardboard in their rooms and wait. The end result is that they are unable to attend school, work, or leave the house for up to two months per year. This issue is a surprising but instrumental key to social change for women all over the world.
I decided that this was an area where I could make a difference. We began to spread the word, collected donations, and bought enough disposable pads for the 500 girls. Although this solved the immediate problem it was not a sustainable solution. After some trial and error we decided to design a DIY kit for making reusable pads. Three weeks later we had made enough reusable pads for all of the girls.
DB: How has your Goddard education helped your work with Days for Girls?
CM: I have a very strong belief, which is shared by Goddard, that we should honor those that we serve, and that wisdom comes in many forms.
In order to develop holistic programs that would nurture the communities I was serving, I found myself using and applying—to global sustainable development—the very same techniques I learned in my MFAW program.
DB: Since you established Days for Girls, how has it grown?
CM: We now have 200 teams and chapters in seventy-five nations on six continents. We have thousands of volunteers all over the world who are organizing Sewing and Health Enterprises (SHES), where volunteers make the kits and distribute them through nonprofit organizations. We also train people to make kits, and offer an ambassador women’s health training.
DB: Can you share a story about an individual or group that the program has helped that is particularly meaningful to you?
CM: Often we do not have enough kits to meet the need for a certain area. In these cases we leave behind supplies and hope the members of the community will follow through with the training and assemble them for the girls. This happened in a small village in Zimbabwe. Six months after leaving supplies, we returned and asked if the kits were made. To our surprise, they were all assembled. When we asked who led the effort we were brought to a twelve-year-old girl named Kgotso from Bulawayo. She had taught 200 girls how to make their own kits! When asked how she felt she replied, “she was no longer an orphan; she was a leader of women.”
DB: Where do you see the future of the program? What’s next?
CM: Our goal is every girl. Everywhere. Period. By 2022. To do that, we need to be unafraid of a simple biological process. We need not be ashamed. In so many cultures around the world, menstruation is still hidden in stigma and taboo; we have left millions of women in its wake. This is truly one of the things that we can change. There are a lot of things that we can’t, but I promise you, there will be a day when we will say, “once upon a time, women didn’t have what they needed and were ashamed to talk about their periods.” I am working for that day.
Watch Celeste’s November 2013 TEDTalk video
This article originally appeared in Clockworks Magazine in 2014. It may contain periodical edits and updates