They may be 2,000 miles apart, yet a group of female students at Loyola Marymount University and a group of girls in a small village in Belize are becoming fast friends thanks to the work of a new campus group founded by Marisa Cariño, a senior biology major. The group – called Empower HER – teaches girls in San Victor, a rural village in Belize, about reproductive health and menstruation.
Twelve LMU students, all women, traveled to Belize with their faculty adviser Sarah Strand, associate professor of health and human sciences, over their 2017 winter break to conduct health and hygiene workshops for the girls there. Additional LMU students are involved with the Belize girls through a pen pals program.
While the Belize girls have learned that periods are a normal and healthy part of female reproductive health, the LMU students have also had their eyes opened through the experience, Cariño said. “These girls sometimes skip school or limit their activities because they’re having their periods,” Cariño said. “That was something I had never even thought about.”
The project began in 2017 when Cariño, who grew up in Roseville, California, asked two LMU faculty members and her track coach to write letters of recommendation so that she could apply for a grant from the Donald A. Strauss Scholarship Foundation. The foundation funds service projects that are student-initiated and student-led. With only days remaining to submit her application, Cariño’s LMU instructors rallied to the cause. “At no other school would I have been able to get those three letters in that short amount of time,” she says. “Faculty are that supportive here.”
The application was successful, and with a $10,000 grant in hand, Cariño partnered with Reto Juvenil Internacional, a nonprofit organization, who steered her toward San Victor. Residents there live off meager earnings from a sugar plantation, and the girls struggle to complete their education. Cariño used a portion of the grant money to purchase washable sanitary pads. Once there, the LMU students showed the girls how they can use sanitary pads to continue with their everyday activities.
After the first day of workshops, the mother of a village girl asked if she could sit in on the workshops in the hopes of learning how to handle severe menstrual cramps. “We had a lot of moms thanking us for bringing this information to their daughters,” said Emily Vees, a sophomore environmental sciences major who serves as Empower HER’s pen pals coordinator. “What I learned from this trip is how accepting people can be. They were so open to us helping them and teaching them.”
Cariño will graduate this year and plans to travel for a year while applying to medical school. She hopes Vees and the other club members will continue Empower HER as an official LMU-registered student organization. “I hope we can bring this service to girls in other developing countries,” Vees added. “It should be a right for girls to have this education.”
For more information about Empower HER and ways you can get involved, visit their website.