Days for Girls, the organization that has provided us with the concept of the reusable menstrual pad kits as well as organizational help, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. As part of the celebration, they have committed to distributing 100,000 kits worldwide during the month of October. Our seamstresses at Helping Haiti Work have added the construction of an additional 150 kits to their daily workload so that we can participate in the celebration. The first 50 kits were distributed last week by the midwives of Mama Baby Haiti. Another 100 kits will be distributed next week when the midwives travel to maternity clinics in the surrounding communities. We have been amazed at the outpouring of support that we are receiving – both from our volunteers here in the US pre-cutting the kits and the mission teams that commit to fundraising in order to purchase and distribute the kits in Haiti. Working together we are able to achieve much more than separately.
We have recently trained Fritznel, our in-country coordinator of activities, in the Ambassador of Men’s Health curriculum. He was asked to provide this education to a group of middle school boys in Port au Prince at the Healing Haiti site. Using diagrams and models, he taught these boys about their own bodies and how best to care for themselves and also about women and their menstrual cycles. The education was well received by both the young men and their parents. In the future, this education will be offered in addition to our Ambassador of Women’s Health Program.
At one of our local Days for Girls sewing events, a volunteer started sorting the scrap fabric that is left after cutting the cotton shields on the dye cut machine. She took the material home, cut it into 4 inch squares and created a baby quilt. On a whim, we brought the quilt to Haiti and asked our seamstresses if they thought there would be a market for this product. They were very enthusiastic and asked for as many scraps of fabric as we could supply. Since then they have created 30 baby blankets that have been sold to Healing Haiti, a NGO located in Port au Prince. Because our orders for the menstrual pad kits is not steady, this is a product that the seamstresses are able to create and fill a need locally. We have been impressed with their artistic skills in matching and coordinating colors to create a beautiful product.
Elly Schreder, co-leader of the Helping Haiti Work sewing centers that construct the reusable menstrual kits, received a international Rotary grant for $168,127. This involved a two year grant application process and many hours of hard work. The funds will be used to purchase materials in large quantities, finish the construction of the CapHaitian sewing center, installation of solar panels, salary of a manager and shipping costs. We are hoping to make the center as sustainable as possible over the next 3-4 years. Elly is a member of the Brooklyn Center Rotary and made over 30 presentations to area Rotarys that agreed to support her grant application. Materials will be shipped this fall.
Our third Morpheus Benefit Concert was the best yet. New location at Medicine Lake Community Center held a record crowd of 130 movers and shakers. We had a dance floor that was well used as we enjoyed music from the 60’s and 70’s. Due to generous donors both before and during the event, we raised just over $9000 to fund more microloans for 2018 and continue to support our sewing center. A huge thank you to the members of Morpheus who have helped to support our cause for the past three years.
As I watched the powerful feminist speeches at the Academy Awards this week, I reflected on my experiences in Haiti that have made me an advocate and messenger for women not only in the developing world but also here in the US. Unlike women in Hollywood, Haitian women often don’t have a voice – either in their homes or their communities – but what happens outside their sphere of influence can make an immense difference in their daily lives.
Haitian women, similar to women in most developing world countries, perform all of the household and child-rearing chores with no help from their male spouses. These tasks are often accomplished without the benefit of running water or a steady supply of electricity. No refrigerator, washing machine, microwave, toilet. Monetary funds are controlled by their spouse and may be wasted on drink and games of chances, while the pantry is empty of food and the kids need new shoes. Physical and emotional abuse is overlooked by a society that places a lower value on females.
These same women have taught me what perseverance and a source of income can accomplish. Each year when I return to Haiti, I am able to meet with the newest microloan group and connect with some of our previous Helping Haiti Work loan recipients. I impress on the women who have been successful in loan repayment that they owe it to the new loan groups to give them advice and support. Numerous women have related their personal experiences of the benefits of the loans. Not only do the profits help with clothing and food, but the women are given a higher status in both their immediate family and in the community. Their husbands treat them better because they are bringing money into the family. The women have control over how the income is to be used. Their children see them as a more capable adult and that hard work has more than one dividend. Other women in the larger community ask their advice and apply for the microloan program.
We are also seeing some of these same changes in the women employed by our sewing program. They have brought us ideas as to what products they think will sell well in the market rather than only sewing the reusable menstrual pad kits and diapers. One of our seamstresses was proud to use some of her funds to pay for a needed surgery for herself. Each time we visit with them they are becoming more outspoken and empowered.
My journey to make all of this happen also requires perseverance and the commitment to empowering Haitians so that they are better able to help themselves and each other. I am often asked why I don’t focus my fundraising efforts on causes that would benefit women in the US rather than Haiti (that is another blog post in itself). Just as the Hollywood elite are using the #TimesUp movement to bring recognition to those women who may not have a voice, I hope that the monetary loans provided by Helping Haiti Work and the examples of female leadership by our participants will touch many more women than just the ones that we serve.
Come join us this weekend as we listen to great music from the 60’s and 70’s by the band Morpheus and help to raise money so that more women in Haiti can be empowered to make a difference in their lives. Visit the homepage for details and to purchase tickets.
This movie, which opened this weekend at area theaters, is about a newly married Indian man who soon realized the plight of many women when they needed to choose between sanitary supplies and food. He became obsessed with producing low cost disposable pads and during his journey ended up creating jobs for women as they produced the pads that he developed. Check it out. He also has a TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/arunachalam_muruganantham_how_i_started_a_sanitary_napkin_revolution
Many of the seamstresses that we employ to construct the reusable menstrual pad kits are women in their 40’s and 50’s. Due to age and a lack of adequate lighting in their homes, the visual skills that are required for the detailed work can be frustrating. A recent volunteer to Haiti, Kris Dirks, brought reading glasses in different magnifications that were donated by Eye West Vision Clinic in Rogers, MN. The seamstresses were amazed that with the glasses they could read the letters on a small piece of paper held out in front of them.
The seamstresses had asked for other projects that they could complete with the scraps of fabric that they create when making the menstrual pad kits. Kris and her daughter Laura designed small blankets that use 4 inch squares of cotton fabric quilted together for the top. The women enjoyed arranging the squares into different color patterns and then learning how to sew the squares together and attach a flannel backing. They plan on marketing the blankets to expectant mothers to use.
I first visited Haiti in 2006. It was not love at first sight, or even a like. I spent a week on a medical mission trip, missing my family and sweating in the operating room while I performed some of the most difficult surgical cases of my career, without adequate lighting and unfamiliar instruments. Climbing the steps of the airplane to return home was a welcome relief from the searing heat of the tarmac and the aroma that is Haiti (think rotting fruit mixed with exhaust fumes and burning charcoal). I’m not sure when the amnesia set in over the next few months, but I was soon planning my return visit the following year. 15 or so trips later, I look forward each visit to spending time in a country that I have visited more frequently than any other.
My trip last week coincided with the recent comments about Haiti from President Trump. While he was ranting about the immigration of Haitians to America, I was participating in distributing microloans to a new group of 10 Haitian businesswomen. The women received $200 to help fund their small businesses and will be responsible for paying back the loan over 10 months with a low rate of interest. Each of these women has worked hard selling clothes, food, shoes and motor oil to support their families. This is in addition to the daily tasks that a Haitian woman must perform without the benefit of running water or electricity. Entitled or lazy would be the least descriptive terms that I would use.
The following day I worked with one of the Haitian seamstresses that we employ to construct reusable menstrual pads for distribution to Haitian girls. She uses a manual sewing machine and is able to make $4 a day working 5-6 hours. She also participates in menstrual hygiene instruction at area schools so that young girls will have the benefit of knowledge about their bodies and not the fear that her generation of women experienced. She has no desire to immigrate to America away from her family, but wants the opportunity to make her life in Haiti more comfortable.
I am not quite sure why this country has occupied so much of my time, energy and pulled at my heart. The opportunity to leave a frigid Minnesota in January makes the idea of sweating in the operating room more palatable. But is much more than that. Haiti is a land of contradictions – corruption and family strength, sadness and laughter, illiteracy and value of education. There is very little black and white, rather many shades of grey. But it makes my brain think and try new ideas, something that is more difficult to do in my American job. I have been the recipient of many opportunities in the US, and although I have worked hard and been the first to graduate college in my immediate family, there were many along the way that provided encouragement and a helping hand. I would like to think that I can be that helping hand for Haitians – providing business loans for women, saving a baby’s life when her mother is suffering from seizures/eclampsia, removing an enlarged uterus so that a woman can better perform her household chores and providing education and hygiene products so that young girls are able to stay in school during their period. Yes, Haiti is a destitute country that has suffered from both outside forces and its own corruption. But its people are willing to change that – if we would only give them a fighting chance. And remarks such as those from our President don’t help to provide that chance.