In my years working with families as a social worker in New Haven, Connecticut, the most important lesson I learned was that for people struggling with poverty, small things affect big things. It might seem odd to think that something as small as diapers can affect bigger things like education, jobs and child welfare, but it's true.
Diapers, it turns out, are a link in the chain of opportunity that can connect people in poverty to education, jobs and eventual self-sufficiency. For example, without diapers, parents cannot put their children in child care programs that would allow the parents to pursue work. To people living on the edge, every link in this chain is important, including small things like diapers.
I knew families who did not have enough diapers to change their children when the child needed changing. I was shocked to learn diapers, along with other basic necessities like toilet paper, soap and shampoo, could not be purchased with either food stamps or WIC. Watching this first-hand, I needed to find a solution to help these families.
In 2004, I started the New Haven Diaper Bank (now The Diaper Bank) with a small group of like-minded people. We met in my living room, drove our minivans to BJs to buy diapers and gave diapers to agencies, which then gave them to parents in need. It seemed so simple, but at the same time no one was talking about diaper need. The New Haven Diaper Bank eventually moved out of my house and into a donated warehouse space, and we were able to raise funds and build a strong and self-sustaining organization.
Today, The Diaper Bank distributes almost 2 million diapers a year to over 4,000 families a month in four Connecticut cities. However, the diaper need problem extends much further than my community. At a rate of six diapers per day, it's estimated that over 5.8 billion diapers are needed nationwide for children living in poverty. In 2011, I helped bring the diaper need cause to a national level by founding the National Diaper Bank Network.
The National Diaper Bank Network's vision is to help America become a place where every family has access to the diapers they need. We work to build the capacity of diaper banks to provide diapers for people in need and raise awareness for the cause, as well as provide technical assistance and material support to existing and emerging diaper banks. Through these actions, we are bringing together a community of partners that can provide diapers to those in need, closing the diaper gap in America.
In the eight short months since our incorporation, we have secured a pledge of 20 million diapers a year for the next three years from our founding sponsor, Huggies®, which will help "seed" new diaper banks. We aim to establish at least one self-sustaining diaper bank in every state in the Union by the end of 2012.
Our mission is not to apply a "band-aid" to a problem, but to provide a long-term solution to a chronic issue in America. Just as a food banks provide a reliable source of support for families in need, diaper banks provide a basic need for families in crisis. The National Diaper Bank Network will foster a network of diaper banks that can help ensure babies have the diapers they need.
Combating diaper need starts with helping low-income families that simply do not have enough money for basic necessities. In 2009, the National Center for Children in Poverty found that a family of four living in a low-cost area earning $37,162 annually (based on two parents earning $9.00 per hour, or 175% of the poverty rate) would spend all but $375 of their monthly income on housing, utilities, child care, transportation, food and taxes. We expect parents to take care of their children and we expect children to come to school clean every day, but the truth is that we often set them up to fail.
Raising healthy children is hard -- and it is harder for parents who cannot obtain the things their children need on an everyday basis. Obviously food is necessary for life, and federal programs are established to help with that basic need. But one does not need to rise much higher in the hierarchy of needs before one reaches hygiene products, such as diapers and soap. Toilet training may mean the end of a child's need for diapers, but it does not mean the end to his need for other hygiene products.
Beyond the basic health considerations, a lack of access to these products can impair a child's social relationships and emotional health. Hygiene affects how children are seen by the outside world including teachers, friends and family, as well as how children see themselves. Products like diapers and wipes, as well as shampoo, toothbrushes and the like, are important to maintaining clean, healthy bodies and a healthy feeling of acceptance.
Hygiene products like diapers are necessities. However, our system has long treated them as luxuries. The parents of dirty children are accused of not taking care of them, but as I see it we as a society are not taking care of them. A recent candidate for president argued against the proposition that it takes a village to raise a child by saying families raise children. Perhaps, but when a family lacks the basic tools to allow them to raise the child, it benefits both society and the family to provide the family the tools to raise clean, healthy children.
Our system's issues with providing basic necessities will take time to correct, yet I remain optimistic. While observing families struggling with poverty has taught me about small things affecting big things, it has also shown me that impacting these small things can lead to big change. That's why I started trying to make an impact one diaper at a time.