Anne Sebert Kuhlmann recently joined Dignity Period’s board of directors. We sat down with her to learn more about her life, her experience working in maternal and reproductive health globally, and what she hopes to bring to Dignity Period’s board.
Dignity Period: How did you first hear about Dignity Period?
Anne: I met Lewis Wall before he and Helen lived in Mekelle for eight months – before the idea for Dignity Period was born! At that time, he was organizing trips for the medical school to Ethiopia.
I had been to Mekelle with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), supporting countries to do large-scale AIDS prevention projects. This work also brought me to Botswana and Ghana. When I heard about the medical school trips Lewis was organizing, I offered to go on one as a public health specialist.
Then, in 2016, I read the first media story on Dignity Period in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I immediately reached out to Lewis and Helen to see what I could do to help. I do a lot of program evaluation, so I worked with Lewis to help them evaluate Dignity Period’s work and show impact. This past year was also my third year on the Gala planning committee as a volunteer.
You’re originally from Knoxville, Tennessee. How did you end up in St. Louis?
I didn’t intend to land in St. Louis, but I followed a series of good opportunities. I went to Emory University in Atlanta for college. After my graduation, I became a Fulbright Fellow and went to Bolivia to work with an organization focused on maternal and child health. I decided that I wanted to work in public health and went to the University of Michigan to get my master’s in public health there.
I later returned to Atlanta to work with the CDC. My husband was in medical school at Emory and after we were married, we moved to Denver, Colorado for his residency. In Colorado, I got my PhD in health and behavioral sciences from University of Colorado, Denver. Then we moved to St. Louis so that my husband could do a fellowship in infectious diseases at Washington University.
We’ve been in St. Louis for 12 years now and started a family. We have two kids. My daughter Caitlin is 12, and my son Andrew is nine.
What do you do for work in St. Louis?
I am on the faculty at Saint Louis University (SLU), in the College of Public Health and Social Justice. I conduct research, teach courses, and serve the community. To give you an idea of what I do every day, I’m currently teaching an undergrad public health program, a course for master’s students in public health, and I mentor two PhD students.
And what do you do for fun?
Well, I love to run. And my husband and I like to train for triathlons in the summer. And I volunteer for great organizations like Dignity Period.
What other nonprofit boards have you served on?
I have volunteered for many organizations, but this is my first board experience. I’m excited that it is with Dignity Period!
You mentioned having worked in Botswana, Ghana, Bolivia, etc. Do you continue to work internationally with your current job?
My research is in maternal and reproductive health in low-resourced settings, so I travel to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and right now I’m working on a project in Malawi. I also work with a small organization that runs a maternal and child health program in Haiti, and I support projects in a university in Ecuador that addresses issues around pregnancy care and health for indigenous populations. I also support a Honduran university with some maternal health research.
That’s a lot of international travel! Given all of this experience, what has surprised you most about Dignity Period’s work?
I’m incredibly surprised at how quickly it has taken off, and how much impact the organization has had in such a short period of time.
Within four months, Helen, Lewis, Freweini, and the team at Mekelle University had everything incorporated and started. I’ve been to Tigray twice now, so I know the conditions in which they’re working – the poor quality of the roads, if they exist at all, lack of water and sanitation, etc. The way they’ve navigated these challenges to accomplish everything they’ve done is tremendous! In addition, I’ve been working in global health for years, and there are usually numerous delays through bureaucracy, logistics, and economic concerns, yet Dignity Period was able to navigate everything and start their programs right away.
The awareness of the organization has increased within St. Louis as well, but there is a lot more that we can do to tell people about this work and encourage them to support it.
What do you hope to accomplish as part of the Dignity Period board?
I want to continue to support the evaluation of our programs and ensure that we’re successful in showing donors how much impact their donations are having in Ethiopia.
Through my work in public health, I’m also connected to many organizations that work in low-resource settings within St. Louis. These organizations work with women who are homeless, refugees, immigrants, etc. Many of these women also struggle to manage their periods with dignity. Many of them have to make do with available materials – napkins, toilet paper from public bathrooms, old clothes – because they cannot afford menstrual hygiene supplies. I think there is a way to include these women in Dignity Period’s mission and I’m exploring how to make that possible.
Incarnate Word Foundation has recently provided a grant to conduct a menstrual hygiene needs assessment in St. Louis. After that, we will identify a role Dignity Period can play locally.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about donating to Dignity Period?
Well, if I’m speaking with a woman, I take the empathetic angle: We’re all women, we’ve all been surprised by a period and forced to find a way to make do with toilet paper or something for a few hours, but what if you had to make do with that, every month? How would you feel? That line of questioning makes the need for this work fairly obvious.