By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Never in a million years did Newsome High graduate Jennifer Kaiser Sithole of Riverview, who started her career as a dolphin trainer in Georgia, envision that one day she would be talking about periods for a living.
But that was before she went on a nearly year-long, worldwide, overseas mission trip and learned firsthand the setbacks and stigmas young girls face without the necessary materials to manage their periods, let alone the knowledge they need to understand what is happening to their bodies.
Enter the Restoration Hem Project that Sithole, with assistance from others, founded to address the need.
The Restoration Hem Project traces its name to a Biblical story in the New Testament, about a woman suffering from hemorrhages who is cured from her bleeding after touching the fringe of a garment worn by Jesus Christ.
“The woman reaches out and touches the garment and she’s healed,” Sithole said. “She’s brought back into the social fold and experiences life again, absent the misplaced shame and stigma.”
As it relates to the Restoration Hem Project, “we are giving girls physically what they need,” Sithole said. “They need the pads, and once they get them, they’re able to reenter life. No longer do they have to isolate themselves at home, unable to participate in school, sports or activities. No longer do they drop out of school at age 13 or 14. Their period is not a barrier anymore.”
A self-described “happy suburban kid” living in FishHawk, Sithole walked the stage in 2005 with Newsome High’s first graduating class. Majoring in psychology at the University of South Florida, Sithole moved to Atlanta with degree in hand, where she applied her studies in behavior modification theory to her work as a dolphin trainer at the Georgia Aquarium.
“I kind of lived in a bubble up until that point,” Sithole said.
Then came the fateful decision to blindly apply for The World Race service trip through the nonprofit Adventures in Missions. Accepted months later, Sithole began her 2014-15 trip to 11 countries in 11 months, including Haiti, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Malawi, Zambia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the seventh month Sithole ended up in Zimbabwe, where she later met Takawira, who became her friend and colleague and today lives with Sithole in Riverview, as her husband and father of their first child. Together they run the Restoration Hem Project, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit.
The kit today distributed by the Restoration Hem Project includes two pairs of new cotton underwear, two absorbent shields, five liners, a bar of laundry soap, two clothespins to hang items to dry and a multi-language pamphlet with graphics to instruct users how to use the kit.
Zimbabwe alone has 16 official languages, and the country “is the most beautiful place I have ever been in my entire life,” Sithole said. “I have never been somewhere where people care about each other more. You ask them, ‘Are you strong, are you well?’ And they answer, ‘I am strong if you are strong.’ That’s how connected people are. It’s built into the culture.”
According to Sithole, her nonprofit today provides stable employment for staff in Zimbabwe, distributes products at schools and gets word-of-mouth support and connection through churches, businesses and individuals, raising money through fundraisers as well. A donation of $25 buys one kit for one girl, which includes “everything she needs for three years,” Sithole said.
“We are always looking for people to jump on board,” Sithole added. “Any opportunity we can come and talk about what we do, to women’s clubs, service groups, churches, chambers, walking groups, anything, we would be up for that.”
As for the 11-month mission trip that started it all, “I was in complete shock when the plane landed in Haiti, our first stop,” Sithole said. “I had never been out of the United States before, apart from a cruise to the Bahamas.”
Doubtful at first that she could make it through the 11-month trip, Sithole said the mission instead “completely changed my worldview.”
“People everywhere are essentially looking for the same things,” Sithole said. “People want to take care of their families and lead happy and productive lives. Where we live, we’re fortunate; we have a pretty good shot at it. In some other places, no matter how hard people work, circumstances don’t allow for them to get out of the hole they’re in. That was earth-shattering to me.”
In Zimbabwe on her first mission trip, Sithole said she started hearing that girls with their periods were missing school. “If you don’t have a means to manage your period, of course, you would stay home from school,” Sithole said. “It really got me to thinking, surely it has been happening in other places. What has everyone else been doing?”
Absent tampons and pads, girls used old socks, newspapers and corn husks, Sihole said. In some cases, she added, girls wrapped a piece of cloth around cow manure that had been baked in the sun to dry it out, to use as a makeshift absorbent pad.
Hearing that, “I didn’t really know what the answer would be, but it shook me up,” Sithole said. “There has to be something out there that is being done to help solve this problem, and now Restoration Hem Project is a part of that solution.”
To learn more and donate, visit www.RestorationHemProject.org/. Click “Connect” to arrange for a meet-up or deeper discussion on how to get involved.