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Take on Today Podcast Episode 6

Bob Edwards talks with Celeste Mergens, who was recognized with the AARP Purpose Prize Award, in this 'Take on Today' podcast

Take on Today Podcast

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Bob Edwards:

Hello I’m Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

Celeste Mergens:

There is a core belief of mine that we are not our circumstances, that we are a response to circumstance.

Bob Edwards:

Celeste Mergens’ nonprofit organization, Days for Girls International, has triggered a global one.

Since 2008, it has created access to washable and sustainable feminine hygiene products for nearly 800,000 women and girls worldwide, with help from a sprawling network of chapters and teams.

From New Orleans to Nepal, Uganda to Guyana, she and her teams are sidestepping cultural taboos and helping women better understand their own bodies and discover ways to keep themselves safe. 

Last year, Celeste received one of AARP Purpose Prize Awards, which recognizes outstanding work by people age 50 and over that is focused on advancing social good.

Bob Edwards:

Tell me what is the goal of days for girls?

Celeste Mergens:

We help women and girls have access to minstrel care products and education. So, they know that their dignity matters, their health matters, and frankly they get their days back.

And when you hear that, the first response might be: how important could that be? And I'm astonished every day at how key that is to having opportunity and to be able to attend school and go to work. We help make that happen all over the globe.

Bob Edwards:

You responded to the needs of children and an orphanage in Kenya. What was their situation before?

Celeste Mergens:

This was right after the post-election violence in 2007-2008 there. And the orphanage at school I was helping had swelled to over 1,400 kids. So, they were in really dire circumstances. There were not enough supplies, of course, for such a huge group of people. We were trying to respond to that need when one evening, I was really puzzling over how to feed them all. And help. I wasn't the person that ran it, but how to help.

I went to sleep and woke with the thought going through my mind: have you asked what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene? It turned out that they were sitting on pieces of cardboard for days and that that would, of course, mean they couldn't go to class.

And that they would suffer the indignities of being in a group of at least 50 people, in very crowded circumstances, without what they needed.

Bob Edwards:

So, what you do is you donate kits. What's in the kit?

Celeste Mergens:

Our washable care kits have a washable pad, under clothing, and a washable bag and make it possible for them to care for their needs every month without worrying about whether they have what they need. And they're proving to last up to five years.

Bob Edwards:

How did you hit on this idea?

Celeste Mergens:

I wish I could tell you that I was brilliant instantly. My first idea was of course that we could have the disposable products. What I didn't know was there was no place to dispose of them and consequences that would have.

And what I did know was if I sent money for pad, and they needed food, they would of course use it for food. And that's the right decision.

So, I knew he needed a more sustainable design. So, you could imagine they needed to not look like a pad. They needed to hide stains. They needed to wash with very little water. They needed to dry quickly, so that they would suit the needs of those we serve.

We've been through 28 versions of our system and today it's a patented product that has been proven all over the globe.

Bob Edwards:

You had other challenges and obstacles?

Celeste Mergens:

Oh, for sure. First, it was no one believed this could be real, that it could be true that women could face this. And certainly, I didn't anticipate how much the need is.

We have reached 124 nations, on six continents. That tells you how global this issue is.

And the second challenge was how to make it so that the women themselves could have access to this. How to make it so that volunteers who wanted to join in, could do so. And that we could be continually hearing what really worked for them. Whether our product was working. Whether the education was suitable. Whether what we were doing was truly having an impact. We hoped, because to me if you're going to do something if you don't pay attention to the needs of those who you serve, you really aren't creating a solution at all.  So, that's part of our ethos.

And how do you do that? How do you do that as a wave is growing exponentially? We have more than 50,000 volunteers. And today there are hundreds of women and men go in the field doing it as well for their own community. If you will, they’re like an Avon lady of menstrual care and women's health education.

Bob Edwards:

And cultural taboo?

Celeste Mergens:

Oh, huge! It has been amazing to watch all the ways that women have been isolated and held back because of this one issue. In Guyana, South America, I once came to a community completely by chance. This community didn't know we were being brought by someone from their community, but they didn't know what we were coming for outside of this one gentleman.

And they were having a very heated discussion over how the banana blight in their area had started. They had just decided that it was the fault of one woman whom they believed had been bathing in a river during menstruation. And they were deciding how she should be punished. Today she's an ambassador of women's health with Days For Girls. And she made me a little basket of woven beads out of her gratitude that that moment shifted with just the knowledge that women don't cause blight because of this basic biological function. That in fact, without periods, there would be no people. It connects us all.

Bob Edwards:

How do you know to overcome obstacles like that?

Celeste Mergens:

You know there is a core belief of mine that we are not our circumstances, that we are a response to circumstance. And so, when we come into a community, when I come into a community, it is important to me that we listen to them and that we invite them. Rather than tell them to consider the rich tradition that they have. And to consider new decisions and responses that will help them overcome things that are hurting their community.

Certainly, as they do in Eastern Nepal in some areas, isolating a woman for days. Sending a new mom who just had a baby and her newborn into a shed for 21 days and exposed to the elements and potentially being bit by snakes. Those things aren't helping their whole community. What if they had a solution that would allow them to have their traditions, but to not endanger people they love in their communities?

That is how it's working for us.

Bob Edwards:

It's not exclusive to underdeveloped countries. you're working here in the United States?

Celeste Mergens:

Exactly, we have found that women here have the same dilemma. If they're choosing between food and hygiene, what do they do? What does a homeless woman do? What does a girl who's transitioning homes in foster care and maybe doesn't have a really strong background where she is, or support in her system? What does she do tell a complete stranger I need this now when she's already had so many blows in her life that leave her less confident? What does a woman do who is between jobs and choosing between fuel to get to the next job interview or supplies that can frankly add up? It is surprising how far the reach here, and the need here, is. 3,200 girls in New Orleans had this need, missing school because of this.

Bob Edwards:

I imagine you're not equally welcome around the world?

Celeste Mergens:

Great comment. We interestingly do have a lot of acceptance. I think this is a time that is come, but you're right. Pakistan, sometimes the women that are ambassadors of women's health there, have to have a lot of conversations with elders and have a lot of conversations with leaders to be to get acceptance for this.

I do have a price of my name in one place in Kenya, but frankly it was because I stood up to trafficking, which bumps into Days For Girls efforts all over the world. There are places where we have to be careful, but by-and-large it's working all over the world.

Bob Edwards:

Was there a particular moment when you knew this idea would work?

Celeste Mergens:

Oh. You know what, there is and I even have a photo of it. It was that first distribution in Kenya. Days for Girls’ first prototypes. Afterwards we're greeting, just greeting them. I knew some of them and I was getting the privilege of giving them hugs and talking to them.

With great big smiles, they said: “thank you, before you came, we had to let them use us. So, that we could go to school, or leave the room.”

And I hoped that didn't mean what I thought it meant.

And I had to wait until 500 girls received their kits and education and then they explained afterwards that they were in fact being sexually exploited for a single, disposable pad. And that was the moment. I don't know that it was so much that I knew it would work, but it was a moment I knew this was bigger than I first realized. And that I had to do it.

Bob Edwards:

How can people support days for girls?

Celeste Mergens:

You can find more information on our website. People have the opportunity to not only support with funding, but to pass the word about how important this is to join a chapter or team. To join our enterprise think tank, to be apart of the strategy, supply chain, for social media. There is not a talent that is not needed. Everyone is welcome at this table because this is something we can do. This is something we can change and it will take all of us to reach the 500 million women with this need.

Bob Edwards:

You started days for girls nearly 10 years ago. What do you hope to achieve over the next 10 years?

Celeste Mergens:

Yes. Our hope that every girl everywhere, period, will have what they need. That it won't just be us to reach that need, but will continue to be a catalyst for awareness about this. We will continue to ensure that the best solutions are out there. And that we will indeed, in the end, have them doing their own enterprise. The market will be driven locally and we will reach the last mile, so no one has to be exploited, or demeaned, or isolated just because of the basic biological function well.

Bob Edwards:

Thank you and continued good luck to you.

Celeste Mergens:

Thank you.

Bob:

Here’s what else you need to know this week.

Fake Russian bots are not the only thing getting social media sites into hot water these days.

Three people recently filed a class-action lawsuit against thirteen corporations, accusing them of using social media ad-targeting tools to exclude older Americans from job opportunities.

Bob:

When it comes to employment, ageism is a well-traveled road.

But the digital world has made that road especially perilous for older workers.

Here’s a tip to age proof your resume: list your university and degree but not the year you graduated.

To learn more on how to age-proof your resume, go to AARP dot org.

Transition

From data breaches to sexual harassment to environmental negligence, some big companies have themselves exposed for wrongdoing these days.

And when that happens, older consumers are more likely than younger ones to view them negatively — and to take their business and loyalties elsewhere. 

That’s according to a recently released poll of 2,201 U.S. adults, conducted by Morning Consult for the Public Affairs Council which looked at how Americans would react to an array of negative revelations. 

And if the general consensus is that younger consumers might rely more on idealistic views to form their opinions, the results were a bit surprising.

Chalk it up to a lifetime of skepticism about where a corporation’s best interests lay, but older Americans are more likely to boycott or shun a company over bad behavior in the boardroom.

Their younger counterparts, however, tended to view big companies more favorably because they liked their products or saw them as potential employers.

The bottom line to protecting the corporate bottom line? When fifty-one cents of every dollar are spent by Americans fifty-plus, respect their undeniable purchasing power.

And behave yourselves.

Transition

For more, visit AARP dot org slash podcast.

Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other podcast apps.

Thanks for listening.  I’m Bob Edwards.

The AARP Purpose Prize celebrates people 50 and older who are doing outstanding work for social good.  On this week’s An AARP Take on Today podcast, Bob Edwards talks with Purpose Prize winner, Celeste Mergens, founder of Days for Girls, which helps girls with health solutions and microenterprises worldwide.

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