On any given day, the bench on the Wilkeses’ front porch in Rocklin, California, is full of fabric — either ready to be picked up and sewn, or returned in the form of feminine hygiene kits to send to girls in Africa.
Karen and Brad Wilkes learned something while building latrines in Rwanda in 2012, as part of their humanitarian service in the Uganda Kampala Mission. Girls who did not have any hygiene products would have to miss school for several days each month during their periods. And disposable hygiene products were clogging up the latrines and jeopardizing their longevity.
While looking for solutions, the Wilkeses found out about Days for Girls, which provides sustainable, fabric menstruation products to girls and women in 120 countries across six continents of the world.
Each kit has 11 components that are either sewed, serged or collected. In 2018, the Wilkeses set a goal to make 500 kits in their ward. Brad Wilkes invited Celeste Mergens, the founder of Days for Girls, to come speak at a ward fireside. She is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After that, the Wilkeses started the Days for Girls Rocklin CA Team.
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The word grew, and the stake Relief Society president made it a stake project. Then it expanded to include 11 stakes in the area, Girl Scouts, 4-H groups, schools, other community organizations and faith groups. They’ve made more than 9,000 kits since 2018. And the Wilkeses’ front porch bench is a key part of keeping those efforts going despite pandemic lockdowns and in-person gathering restrictions.
The volunteers who make the kits
More than 2,000 women, men and youth in Northern California and beyond have been involved with making the components of the Days for Girls kits with the Wilkeses. They find out about it through social media, word of mouth, or JustServe, which is a website and app that connects organizations with volunteers. This endeavor is an ongoing project, with both remote and in-person opportunities.
Karen Wilkes said, “This project has been a blessing to the girls who receive the kits, allowing them to stay in school, but just as importantly, it has unified our community in an effort to come together to wash, iron, cut, sew, serge and assemble kits.”
She explained how the volunteers include a 62-year-old man with cerebral palsy who threads bags, a 100-year-old woman who sews, children who sort shields, young men who trace the polyurethane laminate moisture proof material, and on and on.
“During the pandemic, it was a lifesaver for many people, as they could pick up and drop off projects from my bench on my porch, and work on projects at home,” she said.
Traveling to Africa deliver the kits
The Wilkeses and other Days for Girls Rocklin CA Team members have even traveled twice to East Africa to personally deliver the supplies, once in September 2019, and then again in November 2021. The kits were distributed in Rwanda, Uganda, Chad and Ethiopia. Some even stayed locally and were sent to organizations helping the homeless population in Los Angeles.
“When we travel and take the kits and meet the girls, we find it so important to bring the people who participated, because we really love the adage, that the closer you are to delivering an act of service, the greater impact it has on you and the receiver,” said Brad Wilkes.
The Wilkeses said they can’t take all the volunteers with them on trips, but because Karen posts photos on the team’s Facebook and Instagram pages, the people who helped sew the kits often recognize their own fabric in the photos. They see the product that left their hands and went to a girl to change her life.
And the Wilkeses don’t just hand over the kits in Rwanda, they also give a presentation or lesson to the girls about menstruation, biology and health. “Knowledge gives power and strength,” said Brad Wilkes. They also have a training called “Men Who Know,” which gives similar training to boys and men.
Heaven as a partner in the service
It’s much more than cutting, sewing or serging pieces of cloth, “it’s a labor of love,” said Karen Wilkes. The goal is the girls in Africa, but the byproduct is the 2,000 people whose lives now have more meaning by volunteering.
The Wilkeses see it as a missionary opportunity as well, in which they can share more about their faith and the Church. Neighbors who might not enter their home to hear from the missionaries will go into their home to assemble kits. And they will go inside Latter-day Saint meetinghouses for an organized event with Days for Girls. The Wilkeses have been inside other faiths’ churches and other neighbors’ homes as well because of this project.
“We didn’t realize at the beginning, but there are three partners — those who sew and donate, the girls who receive the kit, and we believe heaven is another partner,” said Karen Wilkes. “This would not work if we only had two of the three.”