Impacting the future of Ethiopia, girl by girl

By January 30, 2018Stories

An interview with Angie Wiseman, Dignity Period’s new executive director

We are thrilled that Angie recently joined Dignity Period as our first executive director.  She hit the ground running! One of her first big experiences was to head to Ethiopia to see our work in action. We caught up with her shortly after to see what she had to say about that experience and what opportunities she’s seeing for Dignity Period in St. Louis and beyond.

Dignity Period: Angie, welcome to Dignity Period! What attracted you to the organization and motivated you to apply for this position?

Angie: I wanted to have an impact on girls’ lives. I have an eight-year-old daughter. I can’t imagine her missing school or even dropping out just because of her period. We have so many resources here in the US for menstrual hygiene compared to girls in Ethiopia, and I wanted to do something that makes an impact for these girls.

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What were you doing prior to taking this position?

I have been working in nonprofits since 2005, starting with the MS Society doing fundraising. After that, I moved to a small organization called the Cancer Support Community that provides wellness and support services to those living with a cancer diagnosis. Most recently, I was the executive director of the American Lung Association here in Missouri.

 

Wow, that’s a lot of work with health-focused nonprofits. Is there something that specifically drew you to this work?

A few things, actually. I have a family member that received treatment at St. Jude’s and know first-hand how important those services were for him and for me and the rest of my family. So, I’ve been drawn to health-focused nonprofits in gratitude for the support St. Jude’s offered us.

In addition, at least four women in my family are nurses or nurse practitioners, and I was influenced by that. My family has always been a medical family, so while I didn’t go the nursing route, I did feel the draw of this work.

 

Dignity Period is different from US-based health organizations. Do you foresee any challenges with raising money to support work that is so far away?

Dignity Period, because we are so small, faces challenges getting our name out to people locally, and also getting our full story across to people who may not understand the context in Ethiopia. We do more than give out pads; we support an Ethiopian factory that manufactures pads and partner with Mekelle University to help us distribute the pads and educational materials and evaluate our impact. The story is multifaceted, and we want people – especially donors – to understand the full impact their dollars are having in Ethiopia.

But I’m not really worried about raising funds for this cause. St. Louis is full of passionate people who care about women’s rights and girls’ education. It’s not going to matter to these people where the work is happening. I also think there are innovative partnerships that we can forge with local organizations to help girls in St. Louis. We’ve already started working on ideas.

Dignity Period also has a fundraising advantage over organizations that work only in Missouri. We can go anywhere in the world and ask people to contribute. The opportunity to reach girls in Ethiopia can appeal to anyone, anywhere who values girls’ education.

 

Let’s talk about your trip to Ethiopia. Had you traveled to Africa in the past?

AngieI’d never traveled internationally like this, so there were one or two “freak-out” moments when I called board members Helen and Lewis Wall – who’ve lived for months at a time in Ethiopia and other African countries – and asked them to help me prepare. They were fantastic and reassured me that I everything needed from vaccinations to supplies for a great trip.

Despite nervousness in the lead-up to the trip, it was an amazing experience. I’m so grateful that Dignity Period made it possible for me to see the work on the ground.

 

What did you do while you were there?

We spent quite a bit of our time at the Mariam Seba factory with its founder Freweini Mebrahtu. We helped a group from the Washington University Olin Business School program get the lay of the land, so they can help Freweini put together a growth and sustainability plan. Dignity Period works hand-in-glove with the factory, so we want to ensure it will be there for years to come.

The most motivational part of the trip was our two school visits. At one school, we spoke with a group of girls who made a lasting impression on me. I am still thinking about them. They were so bright and so motivated.  They shared what their menstrual hygiene needs were at their school, how they felt to have pads, and even demonstrated how they folded and carried the used pads home to be washed because the schools do not have reliable running water.

And they all said they want to be doctors. I thought to myself: Yeah! There is no reason these girls shouldn’t be doctors. Nothing should be able to stop them, especially not their periods.

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What did you think of the food?

Let me preface this response by saying I’m originally from central Illinois and have lived in St. Louis for the last 15 years. I’m a meat-and-potatoes midwestern girl through-and-through, so the food took some getting used to. I wasn’t a fan of the bread, injera because it is fermented slightly which makes it a little sour-tasting. But I loved the sauces – the wats.

 

What did you tell your family you were doing while you were away?

Well, I have a son, Nash, who’s four. I’ll talk to him about my work with when he’s a little older. But I also have a daughter, Greysen who’s eight. I told her that I was working and that my new job is to help girls in Ethiopia stay in school when they are on their periods.

I’ve spoken to Greysen a little about periods without getting too medical. I think about so many girls in Ethiopia, especially those in the rural areas who have no one to talk to and do not understand what’s happening to them when they get their periods. I want to make sure that Greysen feels comfortable talking to me about anything.

 

Ok, last question. What do you want donors to know about the work in Ethiopia?

The most important thing to know is that their dollars have a direct impact. When donors send a donation, those dollars put pads in girls’ hands. Our donors are impacting the future of Ethiopia, girl by girl.