Nonprofits – Empowering Young Women: MoonCatcher Project Group Aims to Break Down Barriers for Girls Around the World

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COVID-19 has curtailed Ellie von Wellsheim’s in-person mission work overseas, but that has done nothing to deter her efforts to empower girls and women around the world.

Von Wellsheim is the founder and executive director of the Schenectady-based MoonCatcher Project, which manufactures and provides free, reusable, washable period management kits called MoonCatcher Kits for schoolgirls in poor communities around the world. In addition, the organization offers courses in menstruation management and reproductive health, and helps establish and support community sewing guilds.

The association’s mission is more than an effort to promote good hygiene and body awareness. It is a movement to break down barriers and empower girls to complete their education. Those who cannot afford menstrual pads often skip school during their period because they don’t have an effective way to manage their menstrual flow.

The MoonCatcher Project’s sewing guilds provide a way for women in developing countries to earn an income so that they can support their families. The project has established guilds to make MoonCatcher kits in Uganda, Malawi and Kenya, as well as a sewing center in India, where women are employed full time. In addition, the organization has recently helped groups establish independent sewing cooperatives in Nigeria and the Philippines. MoonCatcher kits are also distributed in many other countries.

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Here in the Capital Region, volunteers hold “MoonBees” – sewing bees where MoonCatcher kits are produced and then sent overseas. Since the COVID hit, such gatherings have taken place virtually.

MoonCatcher kits, which cost around $ 5 to make, include an adjustable fabric holder with a waterproof Tyvek layer and a twine tie, used to tie the holder around the wearer’s waist. An absorbent and washable fleece pad is inserted into the baby carrier. Each kit comes with three pads. A waterproof bag is also included to hold used towels until they can be washed.

The kits come in a vividly patterned drawstring fabric bag, along with care instructions and a calendar that girls can use to track their menstrual cycle.

The MoonCatcher Project also collects donations of disposable menstrual supplies, which are distributed locally by community service organizations in the Capital Region. This year, 600 boxes of pads and tampons were collected for people in need.

The challenges of COVID
In recent years, von Wellsheim and Project MoonCatcher volunteers have visited sewing guilds overseas on a regular basis to provide instructions and supplies, and to ensure that the kits are made to the highest standards. organisation. COVID has put an end to this. Quarantines, school closures and supply chain struggles conspired to turn Project MoonCatcher upside down, but von Wellsheim and his volunteers were quick.

Last year, when face masks were in high demand, MoonBee volunteers set out to make them.

“We had over 350 people cut, sewn and delivered masks for us,” recalls von Wellsheim.

More than 20,000 masks have been produced and distributed free of charge to schools, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores and other establishments across the United States

In Malawi, tailors employed by the MoonCatcher project have also turned to making masks to ensure schoolchildren have access to face coverings. Production of the MoonCatcher kit has now resumed, but with many schools closed due to COVID, the kit’s distribution has spread beyond schoolgirls.

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“We have relaxed our rules,” explained von Wellsheim. “We said, ‘Go to your villages and find the women and girls who need them. … These are amazing times and people need our help, so just give them where they need to be. “

The pandemic brings the possibility
With all its trials, the pandemic has also brought possibilities. In March 2020, von Wellsheim was approached by a woman interested in starting a sewing guild in the Nigerian village where she grew up.

“I said, ‘I’m happy to give you some kits, but we can’t afford to support another sewing cooperative. We’re limping here right now. And she said, ‘Well, I don’t want you to pay for that. I just want you to let me do it, ”said von Wellsheim.

The two women developed an organizational model in which the MoonCatcher project provides its model kit, instructions, schedule, quality control, and other supports as needed. The people in charge of the cooperative fund it, give updates and send photos to confirm that they are making the kits correctly. The cooperative started operating in August 2020.

In July of the same year, a woman from the Philippines who had heard of the Nigerian project contacted von Wellsheim about setting up a similar cooperative. An agreement was drafted in August. Tailor-made training began immediately and kit production is on the rise, von Wellsheim reported.

She is also working with a woman from Zimbabwe to create a cooperative there.

“It’s a fabulous way to develop the project without us having to raise a ton of extra money or manage it all,” she said.

People want to help
The MoonCatcher project is supported by private donations and grants. Grant funding declined in 2020, but this year, despite the ongoing pandemic, the number of grants received increased above all previous levels.

“We haven’t been that far below our budgeted numbers, considering what’s going on. People seem to want to help and we’ve just reached out in different ways, ”said von Wellsheim.

Special events have been designed to make them compatible with COVID. In place of the annual Moon Wine and Cheese Party, a successful online auction was held. Instead of producing and delivering lasagna dinners last December, the project hosted a holiday cookie fundraiser, which is slated to take place again this year on December 7th and 8th.

Thanks to creative fundraising and the new model of a sewing cooperative starting to take hold, von Wellsheim says the organization is holding up.

“We continue to increase our numbers. We keep going to new places. We keep talking to more people and more organizations, and more girls are learning what is going on with their bodies, ”she explained.

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The public can support the efforts of the project by making an online donation at mooncatcher.org. Contributions are used to purchase MoonCatcher kit supplies in the countries where the kits are made.

“When we spend $ 3,000, we can make about 600 kits,” von Wellsheim estimated. “Every time we fundraise it means more kits can be made and they go to more girls.”

Passing the torch
Von Wellsheim said she plans to resume international travel once it is safe, but admitted travel is getting more difficult for her. Although she has said that she is not yet ready to retire, she is increasingly thinking of passing the torch to a new leader.

“The problem is, the MoonCatcher project isn’t making a lot of money. It’s good for me, because I’ve already raised my kids and sent them off to college, and I don’t need to buy a new sofa, ”she said. “But I can’t ask someone in their twenties or thirties to do this job for what I’m doing it for. … It is not a living wage. And that’s not fair, especially when it comes to women and girls around the world. The last thing I want to do is have an organization that focuses on that population and then says, “Yeah, but you’re not worth a living wage. “”

The MoonCatcher project has a committee that works on a succession plan and on ways to generate an attractive salary for a future director.

“And when that does happen, I don’t think it’s going to be that hard to find someone because it’s a really cool job,” said von Wellsheim.

She would also be happy if an organization doing similar work decided to support the MoonCatcher project as part of its programming, she said. Its main objective is to bring the mission of its project to life.

“I continue to be really passionate about it,” she said. “I think it’s an amazing program to participate in because it’s simple but it does so good and it’s so doable. You can donate money to an organization to build a hospital or a school, and those are all good things, but there is no beginning and no end. You give that to a girl [MoonCatcher] kit and for this girl the problem is solved. Now she can take care of her period and continue – for $ 5. There isn’t that much you can do in life that makes such a difference for that amount of money.

MoonCatcher Project
Foundation year: 2011
Mission: Optimizing the lives of girls around the world by removing barriers related to menstruation.
Areas served: United States, Sierra Leona, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire (Côte d’Ivoire), Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan , Madagascar, Rwanda, Kingdom of Eswatini, Haiti, Honduras, Pakistan, Bali, Philippines, Australia.
Quote: “You give that to a girl [MoonCatcher] kit and for this girl the problem is solved. Now she can take care of her period and continue – for $ 5. There isn’t that much you can do in life that makes such a difference for that amount of money. – Ellie von Wellsheim, Founder and Executive Director of the MoonCatcher Project

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