For Ellen Schreder, love has no borders. The Minneapolis lawyer, Saint Mary’s alumna, and mother of four fell in love with the people of Haiti when she visited the country 12 years ago with her daughter on a mission trip. But she soon saw that the women of Haiti had a need.
Without access or funding to purchase proper sanitary products, girls were often forced to miss school for a week every month. Ultimately, she discovered, many dropped out of school. Young girls and women, including new moms, were in great need of menstrual products.
Schreder turned that need into an opportunity to help countless girls stay in school and help women learn a valuable skill while earning an income for their families. By connecting with Days for Girls and Helping Haiti Work, she and her colleague Dr. Leslee Jaeger have created a way to help the women of Haiti with their health, education, and financial situations.
Schreder and Jaeger are helping Haitian women develop basic sewing skills as well as a business plan for constructing and marketing sustainable feminine hygiene solutions.
Days for Girls is an international organization dedicated to providing lasting access to feminine hygiene solutions and health education. Schreder and Jaeger have been leaders of the Days for Girls Enterprise Team in Haiti for four years now.
Schreder manages most of the business from Minneapolis but travels to Haiti two or three times each year.
“It’s a community of people working together that’s just amazing. The fact that I can communicate so well with them without even speaking the same language is incredible,” said Schreder. “Every time I return from Haiti, I come back with a new perspective on life. Things that used to seem like a challenge for me here are all quite manageable given this renewed perspective. Our Haitian women are so happy for every opportunity, and they make the most of everything. Here in the U.S., we have more than we need, and people often struggle to find happiness.”
Schreder and her friends and family have invested time and money to help the people of Haiti. Currently, Schreder employs 14 Haitians, 13 seamstresses, and one tailor. She’s also working to secure a Rotary Grant to fund the growing organization. The grant would help pay rent and secure solar power for all three sewing center locations in Haiti. It would also allow them to purchase industrial machines and sewing supplies to support the production volume and hire a Haitian manager to run the program locally.
“I’m inspired to keep growing this program because the Haitian people have so very little and yet are so appreciative for this opportunity. They struggle every day to figure out how they’re going to feed their kids. But they’ve made the most of this opportunity,” Schreder said.
The seamstresses have also been trained in business development and the Days for Girls Ambassadors of Women’s Health curriculum, which allows them to provide education about menstrual health, reproductive health, and feminine hygiene when distributing the feminine hygiene kits to schools and communities in need.
Helping others comes naturally for Schreder. She’s known since she attended Saint Mary’s from 1980 to 1982, that she wanted to become a lawyer. Her original plan was to start out at Saint Mary’s (where she majored in English for two and a half years) and then transfer to the University of Minnesota for her criminal justice degree.
Schreder said Saint Mary’s was a good fit for her because she grew up Catholic. And although she didn’t graduate from Saint Mary’s, she made many lasting relationships during her time there. “In fact, my freshman year roommate is still my best friend today—which is almost 40 years later,” she said.
Overall she said Saint Mary’s increased her confidence and helped prepare her for the next steps of her academic career.
Schreder graduated from William Mitchell (now called Mitchell Hamline) and is now partner at a law firm in Minneapolis. She started her career in prosecution but now solely practices family law. What she enjoys most about her job is getting to work with people through a very difficult phase.
“I’m dealing with good people at one of the worst times in their lives,” Schreder said. “They’re getting divorced, their families are splitting apart … It’s a challenge to help them through that and come through to the other side in as good of a position as possible, both emotionally and financially.”
To Schreder, family means everything. When her own children were teenagers, she welcomed two other teenage boys into her home. They became part of her family, which now also includes a 2-year-old grandson who calls her “Fun Grandma.”
One of these young men was born in the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti. “He has taken full advantage of every opportunity presented to him and graduated from high school and college,” said Schreder. “He’s truly able to relate to the work that I do in Haiti. A few years ago he got his first and only tattoo. It reads ‘Opportunity.’ And that’s his story too.”