It might be hard to believe that a flannel pad with an absorbent bamboo insert could change a life, but that’s exactly what Ellie von Wellsheim will tell you.
The Schenectady resident leads The Pad Project, a group that makes reusable, washable menstrual pads that are sent to girls in Africa.
Many girls in Uganda and other African countries drop out of school because they have no effective way to contain their menstrual flow, she said. Often, they won’t leave their homes while they are menstruating.
“[Some] dig a hole in the sand and sit in it for the week and they get bitten by things that are crawling around in the sand and infection is a real possibility. They use plastic bags and newspaper. They wash the blood out of it and reuse it, so it’s shredding and rotting, or they use cardboard or bark or moss or leaves,” von Wellsheim said.
The women cannot afford underwear, so none of those materials can be kept in place when they are up and walking, she noted.
Missing one week of school a month because of menstruation can be a recipe for failure, since many students in Africa don’t use textbooks or take notes. Instead, they learn by repeating what the teacher tells them.
How to help The Pad Project
WHAT: A sewing bee
WHEN: 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28
WHERE: Emerson Room, Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, 1221 Wendell Ave.
WHO: All welcome. No sewing skills required. Needed supplies include sewing machines, ironing boards, irons, scissors, needles and small buttons.
MORE INFO: www.mooncatchers.weebly.com or email Ellie von Wellsheim, [email protected]
“When they drop out of school, the families are so poor the only thing they can do is marry them off to somebody, and they’re too young,” von Wellsheim said.
The young brides often start having children soon after marrying.
“There are physical complications, too many children early in their lives, and the whole problem just continues. It’s a never-ending cycle,” she said.
‘All you need to do is care’
Several years ago, von Wellsheim heard local volunteer Denise Stasik speak about the need for reusable menstrual pads in Africa. Stasik, a member of the Saratoga Springs-based organization The Giving Circle, showed the group a pad that could be made and sent to the women there. The project immediately piqued von Wellsheim’s interest.
“I grew up in a sewing factory. My father made women’s clothing, so I’ve sewed since I was tiny,” she said.
She studied the pad, improved its design and started organizing sewing bees to create them.
The reusable pads, which von Wellsheim calls Mooncatchers, are attached to a string that’s worn around the waist. Three absorbent bamboo inserts are given to each woman, along with a flannel carrier. The carrier is sometimes made with a piece of Tyvek sewn between the layers, to help prevent leaks.
Making the pads involves using a sewing machine, but there are other parts of the process that even the least adept sewer can do, including ironing and attaching buttons.
“You do not need to know how to sew. All you need to do is care. We’ve got jobs for everyone,” said seamstress Meredith Mack of Schenectady, who has been a volunteer with The Pad Project for a year.
Mack said she joined the group in an effort to lessen the disparity in the world.
“It’s so insane that there are people in parts of the world that don’t have water, don’t have underwear, and then there are other people in another part of the world that have a temper tantrum if they have the wrong flavor of coffee. The disparity in this world is just so insane,” she said.
So far, The Pad Project has sent about 500 completed Mooncatchers to Africa and close to 1,000 partially completed ones, which are finished by women there.
“Part of what I’ve tried to do is make it sustainable for the people in Africa, so I really like that they’re making their own,” von Wellsheim said, noting that the women can also sell the pads to help increase their family’s income.
$2 difference maker
In February, she will travel to Africa to help women there make Mooncatchers. She also hopes to bring 100 completed ones with her. Some of those pads will be made at the next sewing bee, which will be held at 7 p.m. on Jan. 28 at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Schenectady. Anyone can attend.
“We really welcome males and children,” von Wellsheim noted. “I think it’s really important for men to know about this problem, so I’m always trying to get men to come and be aware and stop thinking it’s such a taboo subject.”
All supplies for the endeavor are donated, except for the bamboo pads, which are purchased with donated funds. Contributions of money and supplies are welcomed. Financial donations allow for the purchase of exactly what’s needed for the project.
“For under $2, this thing can be made and given to a girl and change her life,” said von Wellsheim. “It doesn’t just change her life, it changes her family’s life and the village’s life and the life of the world. It’s huge.”