Girl Scouts live by the motto “Be prepared.”
But what if a menstruating girl doesn’t have the resources to prepare for her most basic feminine hygiene needs?
Days for Girls has been making and distributing reusable cloth menstrual kits since 2008, beginning in Kenya, and expanding to more than 125 countries. The hope is that menstruating females can reclaim the days each month that they may have to stay home from school or work, or in some cultures, live in isolation during their periods, for lack of menstrual care products.
But what about the need at home, right here in Eastern Iowa? That’s what weighed on the mind and heart of Girl Scout Britt Bowersox, 17, of Cedar Rapids. The Xavier High School senior joined up with the Cedar Rapids chapter of Days for Girls to not only help make and distribute menstrual kits locally, but also to create instructional videos and a service patch project for other Girl Scouts to earn while volunteering for the cause.
Her efforts have been rewarded with Girl Scouts’ highest honor, the Gold Award. She was notified via email Aug. 19, and said award ceremonies typically are held in late spring. She’s not sure if she’ll get to attend a ceremony in the future, but that’s not what motivated her quest.
“I volunteered for Days for Girls two years ago, and just thought it was a supercool project and a super-interesting mission,” she said. “Menstrual care is something that is not only unmet, but also unknown as a need. I typically compare it to, for example, food insecurity.
“Food insecurity may be an unmet need, but there are food drives, there are food pantries, there are constantly efforts going out to help those who are food insecure — where menstrual health is unmet, but also completely unknown about.”
When she began volunteering with the Cedar Rapids Days for Girls chapter, she discovered that some of the volunteers were interested in distributing the menstrual kits locally, not just overseas, so that’s the avenue she decided to explore.
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“She has been incredible,” said Cedar Rapids chapter co-leader Joan Mollenhauer, 70, of Toddville. “She has actually pushed it forward so much farther than I have been able to do.”
Mollenhauer, who has volunteered with the chapter since its founding in 2014, tried working the connections she made through taking the kits to alternative gift markets, but she didn’t get much of a response from organizations she described as “helping people get back on their feet.” Another local chapter “had a little more luck” offering them to all the area schools, she noted.
“Britt went out and hit the homeless shelters, which just knocked my socks off,” Mollenhauer said. “There has been more interest there.
“Locally, or within the United States, just the whole social mind-set of reusable — it’s almost unthinkable,” Mollenhauer said, adding that local aid organizations tend to keep disposable menstrual products on hand for women in need.
But these reusable items are designed to last for two to three years, providing a cloth shield that snaps around panties, and is designed to hold absorbent cloth liners. The colorful kits also include a plastic bag to hold soiled items for washing, as well as a washcloth, soap, panties and pictorial instructions — all tucked inside a drawstring bag.
According to Daysforgirls.org/dfg-kits, the colors and patterns are bright and lively, “to camouflage staining,” and when unfolded, the liners will look like a washcloth, “which allows women to wash and dry them outside in the sun without causing embarrassment.”
While so many activities screeched to a halt during the early months of the pandemic, the need for the kits didn’t stop. Mollenhauer’s group shut down for just a couple of months. It has restarted, meeting twice a month, on a Thursday and Saturday, for kit-making workshops at Cedar Hills Community Church in northwest Cedar Rapids. They are following pandemic protocols for safety, and while they usually make “thousands” of kits to send to South Africa, she said so many mission trips have been canceled that they’re currently making kits to help a group in Pennsylvania fulfill its orders.
But volunteers don’t need to attend the workshops — or even know how to sew. Skilled seamstresses may choose to work at home or at the workshops. Other steps not requiring a sewing machine can be done at home or in the workshops, too, such as cutting the fabric, attaching the snaps, heat-sealing the ribbons and threading the ribbons through the tote bags.
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Bowersox hasn’t made a kit from start to finish by herself. She performs the non-sewing tasks, and lets the experienced seamstresses work the machines. Through her patch initiative, other Girl Scouts and their troops can now check out “backpacks” stocked with supplies so participants can learn about the program, complete a service project and earn a patch, too.
Even though her focus is local, Bowersox has garnered interest on the national Girl Scout level. She hasn’t set those wheels in motion yet, but said she’s “hoping that it can grow to something larger than our area very soon,” and raise awareness of the issue of menstrual health in the process.
Donations are welcome, as well, from 100-percent cotton and flannel fabric to hotel-size bars of soap people may accumulate as they travel.
The reward runs both ways, not only for the donors and volunteers, but especially for the recipients at home and abroad.
“At the core, the Days for Girls organization is giving women the opportunity to confidently pursue their work, their school, their education — just their lives in general, supporting their families,” Bowersox said. “I think menstruation is often the cause of a lot of unneeded shame, and it doesn’t need to be that way — to be a stumbling block to where a girl might have to miss school because they’re worried about it or miss work because they’re worried about it.
”The name ‘Day for Girls’ correlates to increasing the days girls are in school,” she added. “So just increasing confidence — and the huge environmental impact the majority of Americans, in general, leave behind because of single-use menstrual products — it’s just a wide-encompassing needed utility of the kits. There’s so much more meaning and thought behind it.”
Girl Scouting has given Bowersox confidence, as well. It’s an odyssey that began with Daisy scouts in first grade, and will end when she graduates from high school. And even though she’s not sure what she’ll study in college, possibly communications or business, she plans to keep giving back to her community, an ideal nurtured through scouting.
“It’s given me an increased awareness of the world around me, also a career path and a greater knowledge of the needs around me and what I can do — and the confidence to go out and make a difference for those needs.”
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At a glance
• What: Days for Girls reusable menstrual kits
• Items needed: Dark washcloths, hotel-sized soaps, flannel or 100-percent cotton fabric
• Where: Local Days for Girls chapters include Cedar Rapids, Marion, Iowa City
• To volunteer or donate: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Girl Scout project details: Email email@example.com; for more on Days for Girls service patch kits, go to Girlscoutstoday.org/en/events/programs-on-demand.html
• Days for Girls details: Daysforgirls.org/