Some people see a need and wait for others to respond, but others step out and meet those Jen Kaiser is definitely the latter! A former dolphin trainer at Sea World and the Georgia Aquarium, she left her dream career to travel the world doing ministry with Adventures in Missions’ World Race. Read as she describes her journey to begin Restoration Hem Project, an organization that brings sustainable feminine hygiene products to girls in Zimbabwe.
Fresh Paths: Tell us a little about yourself.
I have a fairly large family - four of us kids and Mom and Dad. We lived in Michigan until I was 16, surrounded by family and spending our summers on the lake. When I was 16, my parents packed us up, and we relocated to Tampa, FL, which is still home for me when I’m in the States.
I grew up around the water, and, since I was four years old, I had my heart set on becoming a dolphin trainer. After high school, I was laser focused on making that dream a reality. I began working on my undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of South Florida (USF) and started volunteering at a local dolphin rehabilitation hospital. I moved out to Hawaii for a summer for an animal training internship, and then landed my first dolphin training job at Sea World Orlando during my junior year of college. I graduated from USF in 2010 and relocated to Atlanta, GA, to be a part of the opening team for the new dolphin show at the Georgia Aquarium.
Fresh Paths: What was your life like prior to Restoration Hem Project?
When I began my career in marine mammal training, I thought that was what I would be doing for the rest of my life – I loved it. But, during my time in Atlanta, I started becoming more aware of some of the injustices that exist in the world and began feeling a real tension about what I wanted my life to look like based on what I saw. I got involved with an organization in Atlanta that helps combat human trafficking and really plugged into my church. I considered going back to school, moving, and about a million other options before I found out about The World Race. I spent a few months going back and forth on whether I should apply for the Race or not. It would mean leaving the job I had dreamt of, my community, my family, my security, and basically everything I knew and understood about how the world worked. But, I ultimately made the decision to apply and was accepted, and, September 2014, I began my Race.
The Race turned my world upside down and shattered my construct of how I thought the world worked and who God is. It was hard and messy and not at all what I had expected, but it was beautiful, and it changed my life.
Fresh Paths: Where did you get the idea for Restoration Hem Project (RHP)?
Month 7 of the Race my squad and I were in Zimbabwe and I spent a lot of time with one of the local staff members from the ministry we were partnering with. Often times when we were done working for the day, we would drive out to this small community behind the camp we were working at to get a bottle of Coke, and he would share stories with me. He explained some of the needs of that particular community, and we talked about ideas for helping in some way. One of the things that came up in conversations was how many of the women and girls didn’t have underwear and how that affects them. They often faced infections, embarrassment, and difficulties managing their periods; some girls even stayed home from school during menstruation. So, while we were still in Zimbabwe, I started working on getting underwear donations back in the States to give to our ministry partner. What I didn’t know at the time, was that I would be returning with the underwear myself.
Over the next 4 months of the Race, I wrestled with the decision of what I would do when the Race came to an end. In a way, I was in the same place I had been in back in Atlanta trying to figure out what my next move was – school, back to dolphin training, go back overseas? But something had happened to me in Zimbabwe, and it was as if my heart finally connected with everything I had seen and experienced. The best way I can describe it is this feeling that you cannot unsee something you have seen, and you cannot unknow what you now know – and it leaves you with no choice but to act. So, still not 100% confident that it was the “right” decision, I decided I would go back to Zimbabwe to work with our ministry partner after the Race (with all the underwear) and just see what was next.
January 2016, I rolled into the Harare, Zimbabwe, airport with 2,000 pairs of underwear in tow, sincerely and naively believing that those pairs of underwear were somehow going to solve the crisis of a vast, systemic public health, sanitation, and social issue. I was in for a rude awakening. Living and working in a community long term is completely different than bouncing in and out on a short-term trip. I quickly realized that for any change to take place, it has to come from within the community, with locals leading the charge. I could be a conduit, a partner, and an ally, but it was up to the community itself to create change. Local people know their own needs, challenges, and solutions better than we do.
Over the first several weeks being back in Zim, I began to understand the lack of underwear wasn’t an isolated issue that was causing disease or forcing girls to stay home from school. It was just one factor in the complex reality of living in a world of extreme cultural taboos, poor sanitation infrastructure, inadequate or no health education, social barriers, and a lack of access to feminine hygiene products. My 2,000 pairs of underwear weren’t going to fix that.
This is where the story gets good. While I was spinning in circles trying to find some way to bring about a meaningful and effective change on this issue, a woman named Sherry came from the States to visit us in Zimbabwe. Within the first 10 minutes of meeting Sherry, she started talking about how she had recently been to Brazil and was a part of making and distributing reusable sanitary pad kits. In that moment, everything clicked.
I had started a small Bible study with my friend Esther and some other girls from the local church. We agreed to all learn how to sew the reusable sanitary pads and go through a feminine hygiene training program so we could begin distributing the kits and the underwear and along with offering a feminine health and hygiene seminar. March 2016 we had our first reusable sanitary pad kit distribution, and here we are today!
I don’t have a clear answer as to how I came up with the idea for RHP. The whole project came together so organically and unexpectedly – the only answer I have is that I can see the evidence of God’s hand and planning all over it, and I’m so honored to have a role in the way He’s working it out.
Fresh Paths: What fears/obstacles did you face in making this major lifechange decision? Did you ever doubt yourself, or that this was the right thing to do?
Developing RHP is a continuous process of saying “yes” for me. It is hands down the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. Honestly, the first “yes” was probably the easiest one.
In the beginning, there were so many questions: how will I support myself, how will we raise money for the project, how do you start and run a nonprofit, how can I live away from my family, will people think I’m crazy, am I crazy?, what if it doesn’t work, can I live and work in another culture, am I qualified to do this? There were so many unknowns. For a girl who always has a plan, this was really hard for me.
The truth is, there are still a lot of doubts today and exponentially more obstacles of much larger proportion. But, looking back, it’s so incredible to see how God has walked me through and continues to walk me through my doubts and insecurities, and that gives me confidence for the challenges ahead. He always shows up.
Fresh Paths: What did your family/friends/coworkers think about your decision? How did their thoughts affect you?
My friends and family have been incredibly supportive of my decisions from the beginning. Of course, there were a lot of questions, but ultimately they were really helpful in planning and processing. Over the last couple of years it’s been really incredible to see more and more people join the RHP community and get behind what we are doing. Having a good support system in place has been instrumental in making this work.
Fresh Paths: Has the transition been difficult?
Some aspects my transition into RHP have been more challenging than others. It’s been a bit of a slow process, and I can see how God has prepared me and the team for each step along the way. Working and living in another culture has been exponentially harder than I ever anticipated, but God has provided an incredible community and team. I’m juggling grad school, teaching English classes, and running RHP simultaneously, so there are times when I feel spread a little thin - learning to set boundaries and how to say no has been important. Fresh Paths: Please describe the Restoration Hem Project?
Often times girls in Zimbabwe can miss up to five days of school every month during their periods. This is because they don’t have the feminine hygiene supplies they need and they don’t have a support system in place to help them manage their menstruation. Imagine missing an entire week of school every month – the girls quickly fall behind and often end up dropping out of school completely. In fact, 1 in 10 girls on the African continent will drop out of school because of menstruation. There are also a lot of cultural taboos around menstruation, so there is often no sexual or health education provided in schools or at home. We’ve met so many girls who had no idea what was happening to them when they started their period.
Our goal is to develop local leaders to promote feminine health and hygiene across Zimbabwe. The work we do is twofold. We’ve assembled a team of leaders from our local community in Zimbabwe that have been trained in sewing and health education who sew and assemble reusable sanitary pad kits. This team then runs seminars at different schools where they distribute the reusable pad kits and give a sexual reproductive and feminine health and hygiene seminar. We run seminars for both the boys and the girls. Zimbabwe has 92% unemployment, so a large focus of our work is on developing this team and providing stable, meaningful jobs for them.
Each reusable pad kit supplies a girl everything she needs to manage her menstruation for an average of three years. We do follow ups with each school we visit, and it’s been incredible to hear the stories from both teachers and students on how the girls are no longer missing school, and they are becoming freer to talk about feminine health issues. We want our work to be something that lasts, so we are hoping that this education and the opportunities that the pad kits provide will be the beginning of breaking down barriers and taboos for the next generation of girls to come.
Fresh Paths: What is the biggest obstacle you face now?
This answer changes day by day!
Organizationally, getting past the red tape from the government in Zim is always a huge challenge. We received our Memorandum of Understanding from the government earlier this year stating that RHP is working in conjunction with the Republic of Zimbabwe’s public health and sanitation goals allowing us to freely operate in the country. This was a HUGE miracle and answer to prayer. We are still jumping through a lot of hoops organizationally over there, but we just keep going forward!
Personally – Managing the work/personal life balance is difficult. When your passions are your work, it’s easy to get the two intertwined. I have to constantly remind myself that the successes and failures of RHP do not define me – I tend to get hung up on that. Fresh Paths: What is the biggest joy that you have experienced with Restoration Hem Project?
The first follow up we ever did with one of the first schools we distributed kits at was hands down one of the best days of my life. Getting to hear the girls talk about how they are now able to come to class, play sports, and don’t worry about spoiling their clothes was just incredible. It made every single challenge and struggle worth it. Another huge joy is our team; we are so incredibly blessed to have the leadership in our project that we do – THEY ARE AWESOME.
Fresh Paths: Would you do this again? Has it been worth it?
Has it been worth it? – 1000% absolutely YES. Developing RHP is the most incredible experience and greatest honor. The people, the community, the work, it’s worth everything. It’s given so much depth to my life and taught me to rely on God in ways I never have before, which has allowed me to know so much more of Him. I’ve experienced fulfillment and joy like I never have before. Would I do it again? – That’s hard to answer. I had no idea what I was up against when I set out on this journey. Had I known the difficulties, heartache, frustrations, betrayals, and fears I was walking into, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to say yes at the time. But that’s the beauty of life isn’t it? We don’t have to decide if we would do it again because we’ve only got this one life and the choice has already been made. This means I get to experience the complexity and beauty as it comes, expectant of all the good that is ahead. Fresh Paths: What advice would you give to someone who is contemplating a “crazy” change of direction?
DO IT. Do it, but seek guidance, be humble, and get prepared. For me, that meant getting back into school, making hard financial decisions and sacrifices, and learning to be flexible. Stick it out when it’s hard. Also, it’s ok if it doesn’t work out.
Do you want to support or just learn more about Restoration Hem Project. You can go to restorationhemproject.org/give or contact them in the U.S. at: The Restoration Hem Project PO Box 330 Lithia, FL 33547
Want to know more about Adventures in Missions and the World Race? Check out: https://www.worldrace.org/.