Last week the White House announced a major policy initiative to help the one in three American families who experience diaper need. For someone who has spent the last 12 years working to get free diapers to families who cannot afford them, it was obviously a big day.
I started out by getting friends to buy cases of diapers at a warehouse club and giving them out to local social service agencies from my living room. Today diaper banking is a national movement. The National Diaper Bank Network (NDBN) has more than 280 member organizations working to keep babies, clean dry and healthy. It was an enormous boost to the movement when the White House matched online retailer Jet.com with a diaper manufacturer to find ways to package and ship diapers at lower cost to families and nonprofits all across the country. It's feasible that this year NDBN members could buy more than 15 million diapers from this program - allowing them to help many, many babies.
Diaper need is getting attention at the highest levels because it is a huge problem with far-reaching effects. When I worked as a clinical social worker, I witnessed families reusing soiled diapers -- dumping solid waste out and air-drying urine soaked diapers -- because they could not afford enough diapers for their infants and toddlers. It's horrible to think of any baby spending the day in a dirty diaper. It's also horrible to think of parents having to choose between their baby's comfort and paying the electric bill.
The ramifications of diaper need don't end there. Children can get diaper rash and even serious infections requiring hospitalization by staying too long in a dirty diaper. Most child care providers will not accept a baby unless parents provide a supply of disposables. So diaper need makes parents miss work and keeps families trapped in poverty. It makes children miss out on early childhood education, and that is associated with kids achieving less in school and ending their education earlier.
NDBN collaborated with the New Haven MOMS Partnership at the Yale University School of Medicine on a study that showed a link between diaper need and maternal depression. Maternal depression in associated with a host of bad outcomes for families, including involvement in the child welfare system.
NDBN opened its doors five years ago to help start up local diaper banks, which operate much like food banks, and to increase their capacity to help families, while drawing national attention to diaper need. With the support of our founding sponsor Huggies®, we started a movement. Today, NDBN is comprised of more than 280 member diaper banks and diaper pantries helping families in 45 states, the District of Columbia and Guam. Plus, Huggies continues to donate more than 20 million diapers to the network every year -- 120 million diapers since 2011. At the request of the White House, they're donating two million more free diapers to NDBN in 2016, upping their support to 22 million diapers. And, if consumers jump on board and donate Huggies Rewards to the cause, Huggies will add an additional one million.
That's incredible - and also not enough. Diaper need is pervasive among the 5.3 million children under the age of three living in poor and low-income families. Diaper banks serve about 1 million of those children.
Most diaper banks start with a few good hearted people saying: "Let's have a diaper drive in the office," or: "I've got a minivan and I'm free on Wednesdays. What can I do?" I am convinced that we would not have the attention of the White House or tech leaders without the years of work done by all the dedicated individuals who make up the diaper bank community. The truth is that diaper need is an enormous problem that we need to address at every level, from the national to the personal.
Personally, we need you, dear reader, and your faith community, workplace or civic group. Whether you want to give a couple of bucks or make the diaper movement your personal mission, we need you. There are many, easy ways to get involved:
- Today: make an online gift to support diaper bank programs throughout the country.
Or come up with your own creative idea. The first time that you hand a package of diapers to a mother or father, you'll be hooked. A package of diapers seems like a small thing. But it makes a huge difference to family in need, a difference you can be part of.