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Divine inspiration

Lexie (left) and Georgina Birrell, daughters of The Divine River co-founder Lisa Birrell, help out at a workshop at Makoura College. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Carterton pair provide some divine inspiration

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

Tackling period poverty, reducing environmental waste, encouraging open conversations about menstruation and sexuality, and empowering the community to make more sustainable choices – one hand-crafted sanitary pad at a time.

These are just a few of the dreams Lisa Birrell and Joanna Hehir aim to make a reality throughout Wairarapa.

The two Carterton women are the visionaries behind The Divine River: a charitable organisation aiming to nurture sustainable personal care choices, by way of educational programmes and hands-on workshops in schools and throughout the wider community.

The Divine River, named for the te reo word for the menstrual cycle [“te awa tapu”], started in 2019 with a pilot programme at Kuranui College – supporting young people to learn about and explore environmentally friendly period products.

This year, Lisa and Jo have run similar programmes in both primary and secondary schools, not only raising awareness of sustainable products, but empowering students to learn more about their menstrual cycle and make positive choices for their personal health and wellbeing.

As well as continuing its work in schools, The Divine River will deliver a series of community-wide workshops, teaching people to sew their own reusable period pans – using cotton fabrics and old towels for the inner core – and, eventually, incontinence products.

So far, Lisa and Jo have received “amazing support”, from funding bodies, councils, community organisations and politicians alike.

On The Divine River’s Facebook page, there is a video of Jo presenting a pack of reusable period products to Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty – who has them in his Masterton office for the community to use.

Lisa and Jo, both parents of teenage daughters, said they were inspired to start the organisation after noticing local youth had a desire for more choice when it came to period products.

“For Gen Z in particular, sustainability is a big part of their value system. They are very aware that consumer choices have an impact on the environment and climate change.

“The Government now provides free period products in schools, and we wanted to enhance that. But, most of the products are disposable – which can help take care of period poverty, but not necessarily the planet.

“Our role is to help young people, and the entire community, learn the skills to provide their own solutions – for not a lot of money.”

As an organisation, The Divine River, has three main arms: introductory reusable period pad workshops in schools, SKY (Sustainability – Knowledge – Youth) programmes, and SEWstainable workshops to create reusable products.

The SKY programmes are designed to complement schools’ existing health curriculums, with students having significant input into what they would like to discuss – such as the science behind sustainability, biology, or personal well-being.

Lisa and Jo ran a SKY programme this year at Makoura College – which the students found “eye-opening”.

“At one of our sessions, the students figured out that using one pack of reusable pads can replace about five years’ worth of disposable pads.

“To put that in context – on average, a person will use about 240 disposable pads in one year. Which adds up to 1200 over five years.

“They were pretty amazed. Several of them didn’t know about reusable options.”

The students also had the opportunity to discuss their questions and concerns around periods and sexual health – and were enthralled to learn about preventing sexually transmitted infections, sexuality and gender identity, internet misinformation about sex and contraception, and the role of the menstrual cycle in fertility.

Jo said they presented the students with a print-out which read “How do we empower and educate young people about their bodies and options for sustainable personal care choices?” – and opened the floor to questions.

“The first question was, ‘does it hurt to have a baby?’ And it went from there! We had their rapt attention,” Jo said.

“Things like periods are discussed in health classes – but the information isn’t always accessible for them, and they can feel embarrassed to ask their teachers questions.

“The young people felt comfortable around us – we’re less like teachers, and more like a couple of mums!”

Lisa Birrell and Joanna Hehir [middle], co-founders of Divine River, have received widespread community support for their initiative – including from Hana Baldwin of Fab Feathy [far left] and Jo Baldwin of the Featherston Community Centre [far right].
While running the programmes, Lisa and Jo have had support from a range of experts, including Makoura College science teacher Anna Wilton, health coach Megan Savage and Emilie Fleur Neubauer, environmental scientist and founder of Te Kura o Papatuanuku Wairarapa Earth School.

They can also link the students with other organisations if they have more questions, such as the Masterton Medical Youth Clinic.

“We’re all about sharing knowledge so they can make informed choices,” Lisa said.

She and Jo look forward to running a series of SEWstainable workshops in each Wairarapa town next year – for which they have received a grant from the Tindall Foundation.

Several organisations have come on board and offered to host the workshops, including the Wairarapa Women’s Centre, King Street Artworks, Thunderpants, the Featherston Community Centre and Featherston School.

At present, the organisation is on the look-out for volunteers with good sewing skills who can help run the workshops, and any donations of fabric for the pads.

Eventually, Jo and Lisa hope to provide reusable period and incontinence products to food banks, health clinics and aged care facilities, and expand the workshops to include other care products, like wipes, lip balms and shampoos.

Both women say they have been floored by the support The Divine River has received so far.

“We’ve had such a wonderful response so far – so many people want to help.”

  • If you would like to assist with any of The Divine River’s projects, email [email protected], or go to its Facebook page.

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