USC student club benefits girls in Zimbabwe

Published May 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm (Updated May 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm)

A group of about a dozen female students at Upper St. Clair High School have formed a club to help fellow female students – students all the way in Zimbabwe. For nearly two years, the USC students have been working with the Girl Child Network organization to raise money and gather supplies to send to girls in the Sub-Saharan African country, who have often been abused. Supplies include materials for the girls to make reusable sanitary pads, without which the girls would not be able to go to school for a week out of the month.

Back in 2011, two Upper St. Clair students who have since graduated, Alex and Julia LeClaire, started the Upper St. Clair Girl Child Network (GCN) club after GCN founder Betty Makoni came to talk at the school that September. Prior to Makoni’s speech at the school, USC high school teacher Tanya Chothani was asked by Linda Ambroso, who also works with GCN and Wise Women South Hills, to show a documentary called “Tapestries of Hope” to her class. Ambroso’s cousin, Michealene Cristini Risley, produced the film.

Chothani said after Alex and Julia LeClaire saw the film, they wanted to start a club at USC to help the girls in Zimbabwe and also empower them.

According to, the movie’s official website, “Tapestries of Hope” is a feature-length documentary about the story of Betty Makoni, founder and director of GCN, who was raped as a young child. According to the website, “The documentary exposes the myth behind the belief that raping a virgin cures a man of HIV/AIDS.”

Makoni also helped to start “empowerment villages” in Zimbabwe to encourage girls to overcome the abuse they may have suffered and better themselves. Currently, there are about six empowerment villages with about 100 girls in each one.

“It’s a fabulous grassroots effort in that it’s impactful,” Chothani said.

Kathy Surma of Bridgeville, who works with GCN and has made four mission trips to Zimbabwe, said the girls who don’t have sanitary products often miss a week of school each month and fall behind in their studies, which can lead to them dropping out of school all together.

Surma said when Makoni was in town in 2011, a reception for her was held at Ambroso’s house. She said Makoni told them stories about how girls in Zimbabwe try to stop their periods by going so far as to mutilate themselves.

The USC GCN group quickly realized how much education is valued in Zimbabwe and how much it hurts the girls to miss that week of school each month.

“They want to go to school,” Surma said.

“They couldn’t go to school when they had their period,” said USC club member Michele Scherf, a senior. She added that seeing Makoni speak really affected her. “She actually got raped herself when she was 6.” She said what Makoni is doing for girls in Africa is “liberating” for them.

“I thought this club was interesting, because not many clubs support women,” said USC senior Hynju Bin. She said here, women take access to sanitary products for granted.

Scherf added that Makoni is now exiled from Zimbabwe, yet “she is still building a better life for these girls.”

USC Senior Trudel Pare, who saw Makoni speak in 2011, said, “I was really struck by her speech. I was totally mesmerized by it. It was an immensely powerful experience.” Pare added that after Makoni’s speech, she knew she wanted to join Upper St. Clair’s GCN club.

The club at USC has sent $1,000 to help girls in Zimbabwe, as well as $300 in supplies they can use to make the reusable sanitary pads that have been dubbed “empowerment pads,” and are made of highly-absorbent cotton, and according to Surma, last about three months.

The supplies were donated along with patterns and books on how to make the pads, so that the girls in Zimbabwe can make them themselves. “We’re empowering them to do it themselves,” Surma said. She said many of the girls in Zimbabwe make their own pads.

“We bought thread, fabric and school supplies,” with the $300, said Marialice Skabardonis, a junior at USC and member of the GCN club. She said the Philoptochos Society at her church, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon, stepped up with a $500 donation. Skabardonis said she also received donations from individual members of the church.

The GCN club at USC also designed rubber wristbands with the phrase “Power outside the kitchen,” and sold them for $1, which is how the group raised the $300. Trudel Pare came up with the slogan and said she came up with it so that male students would buy the wristbands. They used blue as the color for the wristbands because it is a color often used by GCN.

Bin added that she was surprised by the calmness of the male students when they were selling the wristbands, saying some of the guys “would buy them on the spot. We had a lot of male converts.”

USC junior Sushma Gudla said the group also put tags on each wristband with facts about GCN and women’s equality.

Scherf said being in the club has been a learning experience. “It’s crazy about how many crimes are being committed. It shows you how much you don’t know about different cultures,” she said.

Surma said nowadays a lot of people have “gotten away from community,” and that the girls in Zimbawbe are “very happy about how they’re coming together as a community.”

To make a donation to USC’s Girl Child Network Club to help girls in Zimbabwe, email Marialice Skabardonis at">

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