Sarah Mercado is a nineteen-year-old Girl Scout Alumni Lifetime Member and a current college Freshman studying at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas in Austin. She has just recently won the Girl Scouts Gold Award—the hightest award given by the organization for making sustainable change. Sarah learned that girls in developing and devolved countries can miss up to 20% of school during their periods because of the lack or high cost of menstrual resources. She traveled to rural Bolivia, where she set up workshops which taught girls, families, and educators how to sew washable pads. Sarah also raised funds to donate new sewing machines and through her efforts helped hundreds of girls gain access to affordable menstrual resources so they can continue with their education uninterrupted. I talked to Sarah about her experience in Bolivia, the community she helped, the future of accessible menstrual products globally, and what being a Girl Scout really means.
Her Campus: When did you become a Girl Scout, and why did you want to join?
Sarah Mercado: I joined Girl Scouts when I was 5 years old after seeing how my older brother thrived in Boy Scouts by learning new skills with boys his age. I wanted that – my own girl-led scouting experience with my friends.
HC: What inspired you to want to help girls gain access to menstrual resources?
SM: Through research, I learned about the global issue of girls in developing and developed countries not attending school because of the lack or high cost of menstrual resources. Girls in rural areas resort to using old rags or dropping out of school entirely because they can miss up to 20% of school of a year during their periods. I visualized myself in their situation and wondered what I would do. What could help me in such a situation? In 2014, for my Girl Scout Silver Award project, I organized sewing workshops in the US and sent washable menstrual pads to girls in Africa. Afterward, this issue still lingered in my thoughts and I became resolved to enable girls by personally teaching them how to make these washable menstrual pads. In 2018, I contacted UNICEF about their WASH program and they partnered me with Save the Children in Bolivia. I traveled to rural Bolivia and organized workshops in Spanish for these rural communities to have a locally sustainable solution.
HC: When you went to Bolivia, what did you teach in those workshops?
SM: During my workshops, I had rotating stations for tracing and cutting fabrics and sewing pads, as well as the opportunity to cut and trace poster board paper into templates that the community can reuse for future communal workshops. This allowed individuals the chance to learn the skills and complete their own washable menstrual pad. Every girl received cleaning instructions to ensure proper hygiene. The communities impacted have continued access to sewing machines to use to make more washable sanitary menstrual pads, as well as the knowledge of where to purchase materials. In the case where buying is not an option, I also taught them how to repurpose the waterproof fabric from unusable umbrellas for washable menstrual pads.
HC: What surprised you when you arrived in Bolivia, was there anything you were unprepared for?
SM: I named my Girl Scout Gold Award project “The Butterfly Effect” in the I hope that my workshops keep growing and spread positive change. When I was in Bolivia preparing for my workshops, I was given the unexpected opportunity to hold additional workshops at a center for homeless teen mothers. As an individual that has not faced sexual abuse myself, I can never truly understand what those girls went through, still go through. I felt an inner sense of heartbroken helplessness in my ability to help those girls. However, their hopeful interest in my project dulled my inner conflict. I was further inspired by their strength when they expressed their desire to continue making washable menstrual pads for other homeless girls in Santa Cruz. Their selflessness and transparent nature taught me not to underestimate the impact of one individual and to embrace unforeseen opportunities.
HC: How did these communities react to the workshops?
SM: There was an overall enthusiastic response to my project. During a particular workshop, a father came with his family. The young boys didn’t seem to care until I showed them “The Beauty of Red”, a video about a girl in India. I could sense a change in their attitude and an epiphany that menstruation is normal. I asked the once-reluctant father if he wanted to learn how to sew. He simply replied, “Sí.” (“Yes”). His soft response remains powerful as it was a step towards breaking a societal norm. This father diligently completed a washable menstrual pad for his only daughter during the workshop.
HC: How did you raise these funds? How much research did you have to do prior to teaching the workshops?
SM: Since I wanted to give the rural communities several new sewing machines so that the communal workshops could continue, I had to find ways to raise the necessary funds. I started a GoFundMe for the project and shared it with my local community. I also organized an Ice Cream Social event at my church where individuals could donate materials such as fabrics and underwear for washable menstrual pad kits. Throughout the event, I increased awareness about my project by presenting and handing out brochures. In preparation for my workshops in Bolivia, I designed traceable templates for the various sizes of the washable pads and created cleaning instructions for the girls.
HC: Do you still keep in touch with those communities?
SM: During my workshops in Bolivia, I trained a group of young women and men the skills needed to visit further communities in rural Bolivia and hold additional workshops. This group of individuals is facilitated by “Save the Children” and focus on leadership skills that they can positively implement in their local communities. I am still in contact with this leadership group through their program’s group chat where I am able to learn about the new workshops and events that have occurred since my time in Bolivia.
HC: Here in America, we still do not have free access to menstrual products, do you think we could employ any of these practices- or other practices- to achiever cheaper or free menstrual products?
SM: There are countries such as Scotland that now offer free menstrual products for students and this has increased global awareness that the high cost of menstrual resources affects low-income families in developed countries as well. In the US, New York has proposed a similar initiative to provide free feminine hygiene products to students. Contrasting the local perception of highly available menstrual resources, few in a comfortable position truly consider the income barrier that may lead to academic dropouts in the US. I believe that sparking discussion and increasing awareness is the next step to countering this global issue.
HC: What is something you feel society or the media gets wrong about the Girl Scouts, and what it is to be a Girl Scout?
SM: Girl Scouts is more than yummy cookies. Girl Scouts is an enabler; through cookie sales, we gain business skills as well as funding for various opportunities. I personally traveled internationally as an older scout through the Girl Scout Destinations program: to China volunteering with pandas and the Swiss Alps to backpack the Tour du Mont Blanc. These wonderful experiences are possible through fundraising such as cookie sales. Girl Scouts offers endless opportunities and has for the past 13 years helped me grow as an individual with courage, confidence, and character.
HC: Is there anything you would like to add?
SM: I am an advocate for girls’ education and see how this global issue negatively affects nations, cities, communities, families, and friends. It has life-altering effects that prevent girls from receiving an education that can give them a better future. This vicious circle can end if we enable these impacted communities. This priceless end result is what drives me to continue this butterfly effect of positive change.