[Original Story here: Home Ec class helps change destiny for Malawi girls via The Star Phoenix ]
Tucked away in a classroom at Mount Royal Collegiate, where sewing patterns line the walls, is a small group of industrious students. Laughter frequently punctuates the air and the sound of whirring sewing machines is almost constant.
They were working overtime in Anna Niessen’s Home Economics class at Mount Royal Collegiate to get a few hundred sanitary napkins finished before Christmas holidays.
Called Destiny Pads, they’ll be sent to a village district in Malawi, Africa through a local non-profit called Hope for Malawi.
Last September, Niessen’s students did an interior design and decorating project for a shipping container bound for Malawi. Niessen wanted to contribute to the 2014 shipment, but was unsure how to help.
Then, Hope for Malawi co-founder Elaine Zakreski, came to speak at the school. She posed a question to Niessen: “What would you do if you thought that you could help girls in Africa stay in school?”
Zakreski then explained the need for sanitary napkins — girls are not allowed to attend school in Malawi while menstruating.
“I had never thought about it. It had just never crossed my mind,” says Niessen.
“It bothered me to think of something we take for granted is not something a lot of people have access to.”
After researching materials and patterns, she got her students on board, many of whom are refugees or new immigrants to Canada, and the project began in earnest.
“They understand the ‘going without’ (concept). They were all over it.”
Most of the fabric has been donated — Zakreski purchased whatever else was needed.
Niessen estimated each girl would need five pads per month. In a matter of days, her nine students made 220 pads, enough to keep about 30 girls in school.
Destiny Pads are made from several layers of flannelette and terry cloth; the class did tests to determine which fabrics had the best absorbency. The pads are fastened to underwear with safety pins.
A few of the young women aren’t technically in Niessen’s class. One, Victoria Lafontaine, 17, has permission from her teachers to help out during her break. She says she’s happy to be a part of it.
“It makes me feel so good that I can use my sewing skills to help other people. It’s pretty easy and it’s my passion so if I can do that and other people will benefit from it, I’ll definitely help.
“I just want to help make a change and help people. It’s so easy, you just have to be passionate about it and speak up and ask questions.”
Niessen has been overwhelmed by her students’ devotion to the project.
“I don’t even need to tell them what to do. I can’t cut fabric as quickly as they can sew sometimes.”
Another person overwhelmed was Zakreski. At a Hope for Malawi fundraiser brunch in December, Niessen and Grade 12 student Yulanda Rockthunder made a surprise presentation of an additional 60 Destiny Pads. Zakreski accepted the pads with tears in her eyes, explaining to the crowd how a small group of students in Saskatoon will help change the destiny of girls half a world away.
“There’s a saying in our village (in Malawi),” she said. “I see you with my heart.”
While Niessen knows she’s helping girls in Malawi stay in school, she’s also changing lives right here in Saskatoon. Her classroom is a safe place, a place where she serves as teacher, friend and confidante to many at the west side high school. Students come and go, all stopping to chat with Niessen, the woman many call “mom.” It’s that kind of classroom. Everyone feels comfortable.
Niessen’s class has set a goal for the 2014 school year. They’ll be making an additional 500 Destiny Pads by May. That’s when Zakreski and her husband Peter will make their annual visit to Malawi, taking the pads along with them.
“They told us they … can take lots of luggage. They might be sorry they told us that,” says Niessen with a laugh.
Tommy Douglas will also be making Destiny Pads; Niessen is hoping other schools come on board, too.
(c) The Star Phoenix