COVID-19 has curtailed Ellie von Wellsheim’s in-person mission work abroad, but it’s done nothing to deter her efforts to empower girls and women worldwide.
Von Wellsheim is founder and executive director of the Schenectady-based MoonCatcher Project, which makes and provides free, reusable, washable menstrual management kits, called MoonCatcher Kits, for schoolgirls in impoverished communities around the globe. In addition, the organization offers menstrual management and reproductive health classes, and helps set up and support community sewing guilds.
The nonprofit’s mission is more than an effort to promote good hygiene and body awareness. It’s a movement to remove barriers and empower girls to complete their education. Those who can’t afford menstrual pads often skip school during their period because they lack an effective way to manage their menstrual flow.
The MoonCatcher Project’s sewing guilds offer a way for women in developing countries to earn income so they can provide for their families. The project has established guilds to make MoonCatcher Kits in Uganda, Malawi and Kenya, as well as a sewing center in India, where women are full-time employees. In addition, the organization has recently helped groups start independent sewing cooperatives in Nigeria and the Philippines. MoonCatcher Kits are distributed in many other countries as well.
Here in the Capital Region, volunteers hold “MoonBees” — sewing bees where MoonCatcher Kits are produced and then sent overseas. Since COVID hit, such gatherings have taken place virtually.
MoonCatcher Kits, which cost about $5 to make, include an adjustable cloth carrier with a waterproof Tyvek layer and a string tie, used to fasten the carrier around the wearer’s waist. An absorbent, washable fleece pad is inserted into the carrier. Each kit comes with three pads. Also included is a waterproof bag to hold used pads until they can be washed.
The kits are housed in a brightly patterned drawstring cloth bag, along with care instructions and a calendar girls can use to track their menstrual cycle.
The MoonCatcher Project also collects donations of disposable menstrual supplies, which are distributed locally by Capital Region community service organizations. This year, 600 boxes of pads and tampons have been collected for those in need.
In past years, von Wellsheim and MoonCatcher Project volunteers have made regular visits to overseas sewing guilds to provide instruction and supplies, and to ensure that kits are made to the organization’s high standards. COVID put a stop to that. Quarantines, school shutdowns and supply chain difficulties have conspired to upend the entire MoonCatcher Project, but von Wellsheim and her volunteers have been quick on their feet.
Last year, when face masks were in high demand, MoonBee volunteers switched to making those.
“We had over 350 people that cut and sewed and delivered masks for us,” von Wellsheim recalled.
More than 20,000 masks were produced and distributed free of charge to schools, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments throughout the U.S.
In Malawi, tailors employed by the MoonCatcher Project also switched to mask-making to ensure that schoolchildren had access to face coverings. MoonCatcher Kit production has now resumed, but with many schools closed due to COVID, kit distribution has expanded beyond schoolgirls.
“We loosened up our rules,” von Wellsheim explained. “We said, ‘go into your villages and find the women and girls that need these. … We’re in extraordinary times and people need our help, so just give them out wherever they need to be given out.’ ”
Pandemic brings possibility
With all of its trials, the pandemic has also brought possibilities. In March 2020, von Wellsheim was approached by a woman interested in starting a sewing guild in the Nigerian village where she grew up.
“I said, ‘I’m happy to give you some kits, but we can’t afford to support another sewing cooperative. We’re limping along here at this point.’ And she said, ‘well, I don’t want you to pay for it. I just want you to let me do it,’ ” von Wellsheim recounted.
The two women worked out an organizational model in which the MoonCatcher Project provides its kit pattern, directions, curriculum, quality control and other support as needed. Those running the cooperative finance it, give updates and send photos to confirm they are making the kits properly. The cooperative began operating in August of 2020.
In July of that same year, a woman from the Philippines who had heard about the Nigerian project contacted von Wellsheim about establishing a similar cooperative. An agreement was drawn up that August. Tailor training began right away and kit production is on the increase, von Wellsheim reported.
She is also working with a woman from Zimbabwe to set up a cooperative there.
“It’s a fabulous way to grow the project without us having to raise a ton more money or to manage it all,” she said.
People want to help
The MoonCatcher Project is supported by private donations and grants. Grant funding dwindled in 2020, but this year, despite the ongoing pandemic, the number of grants received has increased above all previous levels.
“We haven’t been that far below our budgeted numbers, considering what’s been happening. People seem to want to help and then we’ve just been reaching out in different ways,” von Wellsheim said.
Special events have been tailored to make them COVID-friendly. In place of the annual Moon Wine and Cheese Party, a successful online auction was held. Instead of producing and delivering lasagna dinners last December, the project held a holiday cookie fundraiser, scheduled to take place again this year on Dec. 7-8.
Thanks to creative fundraising and the new sewing cooperative model that’s beginning to take root, von Wellsheim says the organization is holding its own.
“We keep upping our numbers. We keep going into new places. We keep talking to more people and more organizations, and more girls are learning what’s going on with their body,” she explained.
The public can support the project’s efforts by donating funds online at mooncatcher.org. Contributions are used to buy MoonCatcher Kit supplies in countries where kits are being made.
“When we spend $3,000 we’re able to make about 600 kits,” von Wellsheim estimated. “Every time we raise money, that means more kits can be made and they go to more girls.”
Passing the torch
Von Wellsheim said she plans to go back to international travel once it’s safe to do so, but admitted the trips are becoming more difficult for her. Although she said she’s not ready to retire just yet, she thinks more and more about passing the torch to a new leader.
“The problem is, the MoonCatcher Project doesn’t pay very much money. It’s fine for me, because I’ve already raised my children and sent them to college, and I don’t need to buy a new couch,” she said. “But I can’t ask somebody in their 20s or 30s to do this job for what I do it for. … It’s not a living wage. And that’s not fair, especially when you’re talking about women and girls in the world. The last thing I want to do is have an organization that focuses on this population and then says, ‘yeah, but you’re not worth a living wage.’ ”
The MoonCatcher Project has a committee working on a succession plan and on ways to generate an attractive salary for a future director.
“And when that happens, I don’t think it will be that hard to find someone because it’s a really cool job,” von Wellsheim said.
She would also be happy if an organization doing similar work decided to take on the MoonCatcher Project as part of its programming, she said. Her main objective is to have her project’s mission live on.
“I continue to be really passionate about it,” she said. “I think it’s an amazing program to be involved in because it’s simple but it does so much good and it’s so doable. You can give money to an organization to build a hospital or a school, and those are all great things, but there’s no beginning and end. You give a girl this [MoonCatcher] kit and for that girl, the problem is solved. She can now take care of her period and carry on — for $5. There’s not that many things you can do in life that make that kind of a difference for that amount of money.”
Year founded: 2011
Mission: To optimize girls’ lives worldwide by removing barriers related to menstruation.
Areas served: United States, Sierra Leona, Liberia, Côte D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Madagascar, Rwanda, Kingdom of Eswatini, Haiti, Honduras, Pakistan, Bali, Philippines, Australia.
Quote: “You give a girl this [MoonCatcher] kit and for that girl, the problem is solved. She can now take care of her period and carry on — for $5. There’s not that many things you can do in life that make that kind of a difference for that amount of money.” — Ellie von Wellsheim, founder and executive director, the MoonCatcher Project