We’re so beyond periods. Hell, it’s menopause and post-menopause that we care about.
And as for changing the world . . . well, we’ve got a lot on our minds that does not include young girls and their periods.
Hold up. There’s a story here that reads like fiction. Millions of girls have no idea what is happening to their bodies and what to do about it. All they know is that every month, they have to stuff themselves with feathers or rags or anything else they can find. Or they sit on a piece of cardboard until the bleeding stops so they can return to school or work. Some girls are desperate enough to exchange sexual favors for one single pad. The shame is overpowering.
Then along comes Celeste Mergens who while visiting an orphanage for girls in Kenya is shocked by the stories she hears and overnight decides to help provide these girls with the supplies, education, and encouragement they deserve.
And Days For Girls was born.
Why Celeste? How did her sparse childhood and years of working with non-profits groom her to launch an organization that has reached more than 3 million young women and girls in 145 countries?
You won’t want to miss her story and how she overcame a challenging childhood, survived serious health issues, and created an unlikely global movement for menstrual health.
The Power of Days: A Story of Resilience, Dignity, and the Fight for Women's Equity
Do you feel overlooked and invisible because you're an older woman? Have you had those age jump days when you look in the mirror and swear that you're looking at your mother? Do you feel the clock ticking and wonder whether you have enough time to check off all the items on your bucket list? Hello, I'm Jane Leder and I'm the host of Older Women and Friends, a podcast about and four older women that kick stereotypes to the curb. We older women are the keepers of stories, and guests on Older Women and Friends share their stories about love, loss, dreams, friendships. But let's not kid ourselves, aging can be a messy, complex affair. But older women have been around the block a few times and learned a thing or two, and this podcast celebrates their lessons. So put in your earbuds and join me on Older Women and Friends. These are the foundation of Older Women and Friends, and today's guest, celeste Mergens, has an inspiring story to share. She took what, to most of us, would have been a rough childhood and turned it into a gift that has given her the confidence and the drive to found a global award-winning organization the champion's women's health and menstrual equity. Well, equity, who knew? But we'll talk about that shortly. Celeste didn't know either, but went on a mission, I think in Kenya. She discovered, much to her horror, that millions of young girls worldwide lacked basic items like pads and tampons to use during their periods. For many that meant stuffing, feathers or rags or anything they could find to absorb the blood, or that meant spending up to a week sitting on a piece of cardboard. That's not a particularly uplifting welcome, but, celeste, I do want to welcome you to Older Women and Friends. Thank you, delighted to be with you. You had an incident that involved an apple and a judgmental look, and that particular incident changed your life at a very young age. I'd love you to tell me that story.Speaker 2:
Yes, Our family was often on the move. We moved 32 times before I was 13 years old and stopped counting. We often just were in places, between jobs, between the next thing. As a result, we would live at the side of the road or at a state park for times. Especially during those times, we often would be without food or tuna fish sandwiches that were made up and would do you for days. Of course, maybe you feel sick and I still can't think about tuna fish sandwich without food. I actually have the gift of that now I recognize that it is a gift. I specifically had one moment when I was about five years old. We were living at that moment at a state park, which was wonderful. You could talk to the rangers and go see the things. I was walking along a path and feeling the warmth of the sun on the sidewalk. This woman walked in to her dog, came first interview and then a collar that glistened all the way up to her hand. She had a happy and apple. Happy and apple seemed enormous at the time, sure, wasn't that big, but she threw it into a dumpster that happened to be near us. I was concentrating on whether I could get in that dumpster and still get out without getting caught inside and unable to get out, I just decided I couldn't. When I noticed she was looking me up and down, in that moment it was as if a mirror turned around and I could see that and felt that she saw me as small and dirty and uncamped. I looked at my dirty feet and I felt unkempt as well and ashamed. But in that same moment I had this warm feeling of you are not from here. I wanted to stay this tour. I wanted to say I am not from here, I am not this place, I am not what you see, but she had already turned and walked off. I used her to play this moment over and over again. Like that. I thought of her as Cruella Deville from that movie. Have you ever seen it? When I was very young, I got the gift of watching that movie and I used to think of her as that, a Cruella Deville. But only a few years ago, maybe five years ago now, I realized that actually that moment was quite a gift because I got the opportunity at such a young age to answer that question Are you your circumstances? Are you the hungry girl? Are you the girl with no home? Are you the girl with no shoes or are you something else? And that has been something that has been a strength for me to build from and taught me that we are not our circumstances, we are our responses. We are not our opportunities, our labels, our seasons. We are so much more than any of those things and our possibilities are endless, not for just us but for everyone. What?Speaker 1:
was it about that that prepared you? I know we've talked privately and you've mentioned curiosity. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of curiosity and how that has played in your life and your professional life?Speaker 2:
Absolutely. It is really easy to experience something and allow ourselves to label it quickly, honestly, using the autoresponder of our amygdala Well, I call it the lizard part of our brain, because it skitters us away from danger and in that keeping us safe automatically defines things that leave us sometimes injured when we didn't need to be. In my experience, when we decided instead to be curious about what someone said or experience we had and curious about how we can use something that's happened to us in a way that creates more opportunity, that creates more strength, we have the ability to choose how we're going to define something that happened in our lives, and our circumstances do not define us. It's only in society that we'll look for the things to be grateful for, that we're going to be curious about how this will affect our lives instead of automatically assuming because I don't know about you, but for me, some of the worst things that ever happened to me turned out to be have a gift in them. I'm not saying there's something I would ask to happen to anyone. I'm not saying that I would ask for it again. I'm saying that there are strengths that we can get from everything we go through and if we have automatically created a label for it. That means that we're injured, that we're limited, that we are in some way defined by the thing that happened, instead of getting curious about. That's interesting, because that person's never treated me like that before, so I wonder what's going on with them. I should probably check it up on them instead of automatically assuming injury. And if something horrible happens to us and it was injurious and it was traumatizing, we still have the ability to go back to that moment and decide yes, it was, and I'm curious about what in that is something I could be responsible for and take action with, and what in it has left a gift and I'm grateful for this thing that has happened. As a result, or what can I find? Even the smallest thing becomes a stair step to greater opportunity and healing, and those two things together are truly powerful.Speaker 1:
Well, it sounds like they are directly linked to the childhood experience that you talked about earlier. Can you talk about your professional trajectory, how you know? Where did you start? What was your first job? How did you get into the helping arena and and going to countries in Africa like Kenya and then being the brains behind the days for girls program?Speaker 2:
You know those moments. They're about to change your whole life and you don't know it. Yes, there have been a whole lot of those, and what I love about how this all happen is it's proof that we have seasons, and sometimes we disqualify seasons like, okay, I've made the choice to be a mother and leaning only, and that's that's my season. I lost opportunities I might have done, but I chose a thing I wanted, right, but in truth for me it wasn't. I was running a national writers conference as my children grew and needed me all. They still need you a lot, but even now as adults. But but I could have a little more time and loved it every day. And can I just say that when the door closed and by that I mean contention, was happening, I'm just not one. No, thank you, unless there's a way to talk through it. No, thank you. And it was an important moment because I felt interest. When it happened, I thought why, why can't I fix this? And here's the truth If that moment hadn't happened, days for girls wouldn't have happened, because the next thing, that invitation that came in was an opportunity to go with my friend Andy to her family foundation project in Kenya. I would not have been able to say yes if Victor had not closed to something I love, and so saying yes meant that I got to do one of my passions. I, as you can imagine, have always been very curious there's outward again about how we help people not identify with poverty and how we create solutions that get them the keys to solve the issues they have. They drive it, they choose them, and my friend Andy felt the same. So we ended up I got to go every six months to bring a suite of selections for them to choose between and then was introduced along the way to this or she niche, fell in love with the children and now I was bringing sustainable solutions for them every time they came to choose from. And then, post election, violence happened. Jane, this was a peaceful country, relatively stable, for centuries, and then here comes a post election that was so close. Both sides suspected the other. Half a million people were displaced because of the violence that came of it, and now this orphanage swell to fourteen hundred kids. They needed everything. I was working on the things you just say, like food how do they get food? And you can imagine that I understand hunger. So I was completely all entailed with that. So imagine the surprise when I learned that they were sitting on pieces of cardboard. For days I was literally. I ran to the computer to ask, and that's when they told me, and I was like I'm going to get my hands on this. And they told me and I thankfully knew that they needed something they could count on months after month. But, importantly, the other thing that was key to all of this is I had the understanding that you ask people how it's going, you ask for feedback, and that experience came from my first degree, which was electrical engineering. That, yes, ask what is and ask you know, how are you, what's your experience? Get that feedback and don't be afraid of feedback, because failing forward is as important as any other point of learning or so, being willing to fail, be willing to just jump out there and go, go, go. So my career in electrical engineering ended in a family catastrophe, so I didn't even get to finish my degree. I went on to have kids. I later went on to get a career as a guru at age what, 40, 41. I got a degree in creative writing and literature and then fast forward and leading nonprofits for years and I had just, with my friend Nandy, taken on doing an audited masters of both sustainable community development and, honestly, I sometimes feel like the forest gum of global development. I end up in a new place and I just so strongly believe in saying yes, in listening to those you're working with, in trusting people to come together and be part of the solution. I know that I don't know everything and I don't have to be perfect and I can connect with others who do have the strengths I don't have, and I trust that that is one of the most beautiful things about our earth we are not alone. We have each other and if we trust each other, lean in and ask. Ask for the things you need and share with others the passion you have and trust them are going to say that is really weird. Trust me when I say that I have people asking me to come speak because they heard from someone else she's a great speaker, great presentation. Then find out what I was coming to talk about. Just be honest what are the world's most prevalent topics? And cancel. I have people say who do you think you are to take this? And it didn't matter because the purpose was to help people have their days back. The purpose was to create greater equity, and for me I wear this. You would recognize what this is it's a ring and it has a shift key on it from a typewriter. A lot of people have no idea what this is and it, to me, represents that what I'm working for is a shift in the world that women are seeing, heard, valued and have all of their equity, no matter where they are. And menstrual equity is about people getting their days back, shattering the stigma, because all over this world, what in the world? We're all connected to menstruation, but on both ends having periods and then menopause, not having periods this is stigmatized. I say no more.Speaker 1:
You have an ability to relate to other people, to understand how different backgrounds can impact who we are and how we are. You obviously came out of this thing swinging. I mean, it became something that was a life force Aside from a piece of cardboard. What could these young girls do in order to somehow have the items they need, so they could go to school or they could go shopping? What was another alternative?Speaker 2:
Well, that was a really difficult moment and also the moment Days for Girls was born. So imagine there are 500 girls at this one place that need menstrual care products and that we're having to do 250 at a time. They're in the room we just delivered the education. Their cheers are ringing off the 10 roof and the first 10 girls come up with their red uniforms and big smiles, still holding their new Days for Girls kit which we didn't even call it back then and they said thank you so much because before you came, we had to let them use us if we wanted to leave the room and go to class. I was hoping that didn't mean what I feared it meant, but it turned out they were being sexually exploited in exchange for a single disposable pad. And that was the moment Days for Girls was born.Speaker 1:
Talk a little bit about days for girls. I know it is your premier organization. First of all, I just want to backtrack when you said you gave them kits which they weren't even called that early on. And what was in a kit?Speaker 2:
So these were washable pads, and it really started because when I learned that they were sitting on pieces of cardboard for days, I was shocked and I wanted to help, of course, and I knew that if they had to choose between food and hygiene, food was going to win. And so how do you give them something that could count on? Month after month, we were able to send funding for them to have single use products and, interestingly, I hadn't thought of the truth that there was no place to dispose of them, but I had thought of their need to have something that could count on. So we made the first washable days for girls kits, and these are two recolour shields to hold absorbent pads in place. It's snapper-owned underclothing. They get two pair of underclothes. They get eight absorbent liners and these are soft and colourful because we've learned over the years that they're not going to hang out as white pad-looking thing confidently and so it won't be properly dried. And so today they hold two patents for the genius of listening to them and what they needed. And the truth is that they're colourful, they're soft and they're proving to last up to six years, which we say two to three years, but we have reports of up to six years and that's been amazing Each days for girls, kits also comes with a washcloth and soap and a year's menstrual charting so that they can track and they learn education that goes with it that what is a period, how do babies happen, how do you know when to expect your period and important conversations that even include self-defense, so that they have the right to stand up for themselves A concept that in many parts of the world is completely unknown. And that's one of the remarkable things about this. You're really giving back days of dignity, days of health and days of confidence and permission to actually, instead of be ashamed by your body, recognize that our bodies are amazing and without periods, there would be no people. It truly connects everyone on earth, even test tube babies, and there is no reason to be ashamed. Where are these kits made, Ooh volunteers make them all over the planet over 30,000 that we tracked here along, 70,000 in total over the years and also at enterprises. We have an enterprise program that helps local leaders make them create a business doing it and get paid, and not that they can do something they would do for free teaching and advocating for shattering stigmens shame right where they are. These two programs come together and have now reached over 3 million women and girls in 140 five-pentries on six continents.Speaker 1:
That is so impressive and as you were building individual relationships in the orphanage, yes, is there one girl, or maybe two, who stand out in your mind because their stories were so impactful.Speaker 2:
Oh, absolutely. And, of course, thousands, since One of them was being not only exploited in exchange for pads, but shared that she was being exploited if she wanted to take exams, and that the others were too. And what was amazing about that was that it takes a lot of courage to stand up and share. It takes, and what I love about it, that moment when she shared, was the understanding that her very biological nature did not mean that she should be ashamed, the understanding that she is powerful just the way she is, that her needs are seen, that her voice is wanted, created, it appeared, the courage for her to speak up and created an action that helped others be released from it All over the world, again and again. Once in Zimbabwe, we had been at a school that we expected 200 girls to show up to. Instead, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds came for Days for Girls, kits in education and adult women as well, and we had, because of circumstances, only time to do one set of 75. They promised they'd come back. When they came back, having left, as a promise of return, the fabric materials to make a full 200 kits, imagine that they said they're gone. The materials are gone. And Linda who did Days for Girls in Zimbabwe said what happened and they explained that one of the girls had remembered everything she was taught, which was quite complex, and taught everybody else to make them so that everybody had them now. So you can imagine. She asked who is this amazing person and she was pointed to 12-year-old Goh Tzu. He had a pink striped shirt and who. Once she was asked how did you do that? What do you feel? Having done that, she said I am no longer an orphan, I am a leader of women.Speaker 1:
Wow, wow, wow, wow. I'm assuming that there are multiple stories like that that serve as the backbone, the springboard, for a new book that I know is coming out shortly and it is titled the Power of Days. Is that correct? Yes, why write a book?Speaker 2:
There are stories like that one are so powerful so you can imagine, as I'm going to like better write that down, and I wanted everyone I was gifted to be working with with Days for Girls volunteers and individuals all over the world to know of the impact of what they do, and so I would save the photos and save the stories, and it became really clear that if this story could be told, more people would talk about it. We could like be done. There are a lot of things that are hard to change in this world, but everyone having what they need for their periods is something we can change in our lifetime and, equally as important, shatter the stigma and shame because we just talk about it now, all aspects of women's health. We just talk about it because it matters, and so sharing those stories was important and, honestly, jane, for me this book is a love letter to humanity. It's proof because, let's be honest, we would talk about anything but periods. I mean, there are actual data points. So we would rather, in Canada and the US, talk about STIs than periods. That's ridiculous and train right. So this is the New York, new York of development If you can create a global movement around menstruation and free people and give communities back their days, then we can shift anything if we come together, instead of being siloed over what we don't want, what we hate, who we hate, what we really, really dislike, and instead of focus on what we do want to see more of in the world. If we can find the people who also feel like this is something to change, not to silo, but to take it away with joy because it's part of their purpose the things that call to you in your heart. We can sell all the things, and this book is proof.Speaker 1:
Well, that's a very inspiring story. Can you tell people where they can find the book, where they can find more information about days for girls and more information about you personally?Speaker 2:
Yes, Anywhere books are sold, they can order the power of days a story of resilience, dignity and the fight for women's equity, and you could go to Days for Girls website or my own, celestemarganscom, and there are opportunities to see more about what Days for Girls does and plenty of opportunities to also volunteer with Days for Girls wherever you live. There's advocacy. You can contribute just $13, helps another person have what they need for their periods and have the knowledge to go with it, and these last four years and the knowledge it spreads through communities, so wow. So contributions also make a big difference and I look forward to hearing what they think of the book and the stories and the healing that comes from it.Speaker 1:
Well, I will encourage everyone to give you that feedback. As an author myself, I understand how important that is. Thank you so much for being here. Go out, check out our book, find out more about Days for Girls and your enthusiasm. Power of positive thinking is something that, if you could see Celeste right now, she is and I've mentioned this before to other people a beam of light and we welcome that light. Thank you very much. Thank you, it's good to do light. Thank you so much for joining me on this episode of Older Women and Friends Speaking of friends. Please tell yours about this podcast and if you'd like to contact me with comments or suggestions, you can email me at olderwomenandfriendspodcastatgmailcom. And while you're at it, please take a few minutes to write a review. It's really easy. Go to Apple Podcast, type in older women and friends, scroll down the page and click on reviews. Until next time.