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Diaper Banks Are Saving Families

Photograph by Twenty20

Too often, those of us who haven’t experienced diaper need live in a bubble, untouched by the harsh realities facing so many families in our neighborhoods. As a former low-income teen mother who once was forced to cut the insides of my son’s diaper and refill it with paper towels, I know all too well how silent and humiliating that struggle can be. Not long ago, researchers discovered something troubling: a correlation between diaper need and mental health problems. It turns out needing diapers for your child can do a lot more damage to an entire family than previously realized.

Nearly 19 years after personally experiencing diaper need, I flew to Philadelphia to speak about my struggle as a young mom at the fifth annual Diaper Banks in America Conference, hosted by The National Diaper Bank Network. I'll admit that walking in, I had no idea what to expect.

The conference—which featured keynote speaker Donna Shalala, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services and current president of the Clinton Foundation—drew diaper bank and diaper pantry leaders from across the nation who wanted to share their stories, network, and learn ways in which they can alleviate diaper need.

Many people unfamiliar with the term "diaper need" often scratch their heads in confusion. To some, it sounds like a first-world problem, the natural consequence of ill-prepared parents who just need to work harder and budget better.

The sad reality is that one in three families in the United States deal with diaper need at some point, and many of those families, according to Lisa Moody, executive director of Baby Basics of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, Calif., have two working parents struggling to make ends meet.

“With a high cost of living in California,” she explained, “many of our clients are considered ‘working poor.’ When you consider the $7-10 in sales tax per month on diapers alone, that may not be a lot to some families, but for low-income clients, that’s the choice between a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread.”

Some families, when pushed to the breaking point, wind up making terrible, life altering decisions.

“There was one mom that went to jail for stealing a pack of diapers,” Lisa shared. “When parents can’t meet the basic needs for their children, it’s humiliating, and it leads them to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take.”

This sentiment was echoed over and over by diaper bank directors like Michal Smith of Cradles to Crayons, a Boston-based charity which branched out to Philadelphia in 2006. Michal, who took conference attendees on a tour of her Conshohocken, Penn. facility, shared that Philadelphia has an estimated 90,000 children under the age of 3 living in poverty. That number is far too high, and represents a lot of parents who are struggling to provide.

In fact, Philadelphia is the largest city with the most deep poverty in the country. The term "deep poverty" means a household is living off a total cash income below 50 percent of its poverty threshold. To put that in perspective: a family of three living in deep poverty subsists on an annual income of less than $9,276, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

One in three families in the U.S. deals with diaper need at some point, and many of those families have two working parents struggling to make ends meet.

Diaper need, as Michal and Lisa both pointed out, doesn’t stop at just diapers, either. Typically, families who face challenges purchasing clean diapers also face food insecurity, and financial hardships that impact their children’s ability to thrive.

Michal’s work with Cradles to Crayons seeks to eradicate as many of those needs as possible, giving children a better start in life. The charity operates on a "recycled product model" where donated, used items make their way to the facility and an average of 200 volunteers per month work to clean, sort and package the items to be redistributed to children ages 0-12. The most amazing part of their work is that the organization is not just a diaper bank, but a fully operating charity that aims to provide children with seasonal clothes, shoes, backpacks, school supplies, toys, baby furniture, and even a birthday present.

Photograph by Facebook

“Some of these children,” Michal shared, “won’t get any other gifts this year. So this is special.”

Many of the diaper bank leaders I met talked about the ways they’re working to help families in their communities, beyond diapers. Some, like Michela Hugo, founder and executive director of Central New York Diaper Bank in Syracuse knows diapers are important, but also wants to focus on childhood literacy. This is why her diaper bank includes tips for brain-building exercises and registration flyers to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library so children between 0-5 years old can receive a free book each month.

As Michela explained, “When parents are lacking in basic needs like diapers, they are far less likely to be spending time talking, singing and playing with their babies. By including tips with diapers, we hope to catch those parents in a time when they are feeling a higher sense of self-efficacy which could lead to them feeling encouraged to bond and play with their babies.”

In fact, this need for literacy has been recognized by other organizations, as well. Recently, Huggies, Penguin Young Readers, Too Small to Fail and The National Diaper Bank Network joined forces to establish “Baby Book Banks” with 20 diaper bank partners. Penguin has committed to donating 100,000 board books for children that will be distributed with donated diapers in low-income neighborhoods. The goal is to encourage “language-rich interactions” between parents and children, which can lead to more cognitive function in babies and, maybe, change their lives in the process.

Other diaper banks, like Baby Basics, are combining parental education and an “Ages and Stages” questionnaire to help identify struggles parents may not be aware of, like childhood developmental milestones. Early intervention can lead to early treatment and an improved quality of life for children who may have delays.

The message from these community leaders is clear: diaper need goes beyond diapers alone. With an estimated 15 million children living in poverty in the United States, there is a big pool that needs to be reached.

While donations are pivotal to the success of these diaper banks, educating people on diaper need may be even more crucial. Without clear recognition of this need and how it impacts families, people will continue to brush diaper need aside and leave millions of children struggling to truly thrive.

In Philadelphia, listening to the incredible stories of men and women who have devoted their lives to helping these children, I was reminded that their mission cannot be fulfilled without our help. Not only do they need donations and funding, but also, awareness.

I learned that diaper need, no matter how insignificant it may sound to some, is a valid, real problem that deserves everyone's attention. I also realized that our communities have some amazing people doing the ground work to fix this problem, but have limited resources to support them. I think that should change.

While donations are pivotal to the success of these diaper banks, educating people on diaper need may be even more crucial. Without clear recognition of this need and how it impacts families, people will continue to brush diaper need aside and leave millions of children struggling to truly thrive.

There are many ways to give. You can do a diaper drive and donate them to your local diaper bank or diaper pantry. You can join the National Diaper Bank Network's social media campaign to raise awareness about diaper need. You can fundraise and give a monetary donation, and you can even write to your legislators and ask them to do more to meet the needs of low-income families.

Finally, if you’ve ever experienced the hardship of diaper need, share that story with others. Help people understand that it isn’t shameful, purposeful or unknowable. Give them a personal account to help them see that every day, the people we know and love, may be struggling and could use a hand up.

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