On a recent winter afternoon, some dozen women and girls are gathered around long tables, cutting, pinning, pressing, sewing. And chatting.

The Northminster Presbyterian Church guildhall is abuzz with its second MoonBee – a contemporary version of the old-fashioned sewing bee. Participants have come together to produce items at once humbler and more ambitious than the pieced quilts for which the “bees” are generally known.  

As participants in the MoonCatcher Project, the Northminster women are extending their reach around the world. They are making reusable, washable menstrual pads that give girls a chance to stay in school during their monthly period. This one simple accessory can give girls a chance to control their own destinies.                    

In countries where a typical wage is $1 a day or less, the cost of disposable pads at $1 per package is unaffordable. Lacking hygienic products, young women often must stay home during their cycle. They fall behind in their schoolwork and are likely to drop out of school and succumb to early marriage and childbirth, curtailing their dreams and ambitions.

Their other recourse is to contain their menstrual periods with whatever they can find, such as mixtures of dirt and grass, newspaper, or plastic bags. Not only are such makeshift materials irritating and unsanitary, but they are also difficult to dispose of where garbage cans and pickup are nonexistent.

Two women volunteering in Zimbabwe caught on to the problem when they saw girls running after paper and plastic bags and hoarding them to use during their periods.

The MoonCatcher Project took root in the Eastern U.S. in 2011, when Ellie von Wellsheim heard volunteer Denise Stasik speak in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. As the daughter of a sewing factory owner and proprietor of her own sewing business, Ms. von Wellsheim was confident she could systematize the production of pads using volunteers.

With input from African girls, Ms. von Wellsheim and her daughter adapted the design of the pads and began distributing them in kits consisting of a reusable, washable pad and carrier, a waterproof bag for used pads, and a menstrual management and reproductive health curriculum to help girls understand their bodies, all tucked into a colorful drawstring carrying bag.

Ms. van Wellsheim struck upon the idea of the MoonBee to bring together groups of volunteers to make the kits in the U.S. With the help of a network of non-profit partner organizations, the Project has also established five sewing guilds in Uganda, one in Malawi, and another in Kenya, as well as classes on menstruation and reproductive health.

Working to support the local economies and ensure that the Project is sustainable, organizers source materials for the kits locally when possible. The kits have been distributed in 15 countries around the globe and have helped 8,000 girls stay in school. Reached by phone, Ms. von Wellsheim says she recently shipped kits to Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Congo. She leaves for return visits to Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi at the end of February.

The MoonCatcher Project, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, welcomes donations, either financial or in-kind supplies such as Tyvek envelopes, fabric, and thread. Directions for donating or for hosting a MoonBee can be found on the website www.mooncatcher.org.  

 Northminster Church member Kate Brown met Ms. von Wellsheim on vacation and was so taken with the Project she decided to bring it to Evanston. She signed up to hold a MoonBee and received all the materials for 25 kits, along with instructions for making them.
Constructing the pads and the “carriers” that hold them is a multi-step process that offers something for everyone to do at a MoonBee. Some of the Northminster participants, who at the two Bees have ranged in age from 9 to 90-plus, are accomplished seamstresses, some not. Diane Larsen has found a niche pinning a waterproof strip of Tyvek cut from a U.S.P.S. envelope to the wrong side of the carrier. Linda Beckstedt, a retired teacher who quilts and embroiders, is sewing the Tyvek to the soft cotton pad carrier. Others are stitching to the carrier the fabric straps that will hold the pad in place. Mother-daughter duo Heather and Emily Eloff, 14, enthusiastic non-sewers, are turning the carrier and straps, which have been sewn right sides together, right side out and then steam pressing them.

Filling in in several capacities, from machine stitching to ironing and inserting the bright-colored shoelaces that encircle a girl’s waist to hold the pad and carrier in place, is Ashlin Rogowski, 10, here with her mother, Meredith, Director of Children and Families at Northminster.

Another team – Nancy Kim Phillips, Rebecca Naquin, Mary Rosic, and Pat Froh – is sewing bright purple waterproof bags with red Velcro closures. In the women-helping-women spirit of the Bee, Ms. Naquin, though a sewing novice, is able to show Ms. Rosic how to thread the bobbin on an unfamiliar machine.

A whoop goes out from Ms. Kim Phillips as she registers a personal victory. She has just finished a fourth purple bag – “in 10 minutes,” she notes  – “and the first one took me 40 minutes.”

Small victories add up when girls’ futures are at stake. Work still remains on the 25 kits Northminster has committed to finish, and Ms. Brown hopes the Project will be an ongoing mission of the church. A group of little girls at the first Bee captured the essence of the Project, writing a heart-bedecked message to each MoonCatcher recipient: “This pad was lovingly made for you by the women of Northminster Presbyterian Church.”