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Published February 16 2012

From Fargo to Africa: Gathering supplies to help girls in Sudan go to school

If you go

What: “Get Your Panties in a Bunch!”

When: Saturday, February 18

Where: Ramada Plaza Suites, Fargo

Info: Advance tickets, $20; $25 at the door. Reserve a table for 10: $250. Call Deb Dawson at (701) 478-7800 for more information.

Online: Pre-pay at AfricanSoulAmericanHeart.org

FARGO – Deb Dawson’s life would have been much easier if she’d never traveled to South Sudan in 2007 and seen the needs of the people there.

In subsequent trips to the area, one concern in particular haunted her: how the orphaned Sudanese girls quit school at puberty due to lack of sanitary supplies and underwear.

“They talk about how they stay away from school because of the spots of blood on their skirts, and how the boys make fun of them,” Dawson said. “If you stay home a week every month, you’re going to fall behind, and eventually they just quit.”

Upon receiving the necessary supplies – as they’ve done since Dawson has entered the picture – most re-enroll and continue their education.

Though Dawson dreamed of building a school and orphanage for the girls following that first visit, resources were low. So she decided to start with a smaller, manageable project.

The luncheon event, now in its third year, has been named “Get Your Panties in a Bunch!” and benefits orphan girls in Sudan. This year’s panty-gathering get-together will take place Saturday at the Ramada Inn Plaza Suites in Fargo.

Participants are asked to bring new panties, sizes 6 to 14, and/or to donate cash for shipping the supplies, which make a 7,700-mile journey to reach their intended recipients.

The sanitary pads are washable and reusable. “We can’t use paper products because there’s no disposal system for them,” Dawson said. “We’re trying to bring things that are usable within their culture.”

But it’s about more than just short-term needs. Not having the proper supplies and clothing to deal with menstrual periods also restricts women in the long run from receiving a higher education that would lead to a leadership position within their community.

“I believe strongly that educated women will change their country,” Dawson said. “They will be the ones to affect others through their knowledge and their mentoring.”

The girls have become orphans for a variety of reasons, including snake bites, childbirth, malnutrition and murder by enemy tribes. One girl’s family was killed by an opposing tribe but she was spared because, sleeping under a mosquito net, she’d gone undetected.

Though orphans live with guardian families, some of these are also starving, and the orphans are less likely to be fed. “They’re most likely to be kept home to grind grain, carry water and to be married at puberty,” Dawson said, adding, “They have a better chance of dying in childbirth than finishing primary school.”

Over time, Dawson was able to set up an orphanage and school in the area. Earlier this week, the first 12 girls to be approved for the program moved into a facility erected at the direction of Dawson and other board members of the non-profit organization she founded, African Soul, American Heart.

In November, tribal chiefs of the Duk Payuel village granted Dawson a

5-acre fenced site that now has adobe homes with thatched roofs, two toilets and a shower with a hand sink.

Dawson said it took 36 men to lift the tower for the facility. “You can imagine what it’s like to build in a place where you have no equipment, and six months out of the year you can’t drive because of the tremendous flooding,” Dawson said. “It nearly fell and crushed our fence.”

The organization’s goal is to educate and equip 50 girls with practical life skills, and in some cases, help them pursue secondary school and technical college.

“Our girls are also going to be trained in health and hygiene so they can teach moms in village about things like cleaning their babies’ eyes and noses to help prevent illness and infection,” she said. “We’re working as much as we can with local community.”

Local architect Jeff Foss, a childhood friend of Dawson’s, volunteered his services for the project and was on site for the building this past summer.

“Going to this unique environment, it’s not just going to Africa but more like the Wild West,” he said, noting that it’s not uncommon to have bats, owls and other assorted creatures flying around you while you’re having a conversation.

Dawson puts herself in a precarious situation during her trips, he added, but with her mix of artistic and business sense, handles herself well and gets the job done.

The salad-soup event will include several presentations, including a series of short videos from Dawson’s time in Sudan, and a talk by Jacob Kuai, a young, Sudanese man who has seen the project firsthand. Special education teacher Angie Ostbye will share insights on meeting the girls benefitting from the outreach.

Another presenter will be Christine Okurut-Ibore, a Uganda native pursuing her doctorate in education at North Dakota State University.

“She’ll share her personal story of how her father wanted to use his cattle as dowry to purchase more wives rather than educate his daughters,” Dawson said, adding that the story has a happy ending – but you’ll have to attend the event to find out.