The St. Louis Area Diaper Bank distributes products that most of us don’t think about every day—or if we do think about them, we might prefer not to talk about them. Even though they’re a universal part of human experience, there’s a stigma involved in talking about diapers and feminine hygiene products.
But the need is there whether we talk about it or not. The average baby goes through 2,500 diapers during the first year. Newborns need around 70 per week; by age 1, that’s down to “only” 35 per week.
For 2- and 3-year-olds, the stage of learning to use the toilet is closely tied to their physical and cognitive development—which means they can’t necessarily potty train just because their parents are ready for it to happen. The whole process can be stressful in the best of times; more child abuse occurs during toilet learning than any other developmental step. And with the huge economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are not the best of times.
“I am a social worker, and I did not even think about diapers being essential until I came to the Diaper Bank and read the research,” said Charlin Hughes, Director of Outreach and Community Engagement. “I have five children and I know what the struggle getting diapers was, but I never made the correlation between cognitive growth and milestones and not having toilet paper.”
Unlike formula and food, diapers are not covered by SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) or by WIC. “And the same goes for period supplies,” Hughes added. “People don’t think about these things because we don’t talk about these things.”
Emergency response with the Community Impact Network
In April, the Diaper Bank distributed 222,448 diapers—all shrink-wrapped into packs of 25. Counting and preparing the diapers is a labor-intensive process that the Diaper Bank staff usually shares with volunteers. But with the risk of contagion that COVID-19 poses, they’ve limited access to their warehouse, and the staff is left to pick up the slack. “Sometimes that means working much longer hours to make sure the diapers get wrapped for distribution,” Hughes said.
The Diaper Bank usually distributes diapers and period supply kits via partner organizations who pick up at the warehouse once a week. But back in March, as everyone braced to see what the impact from coronavirus would be, the Community Impact Network reached out about the Emergency Services Response Initiative it was working on with members of its coalitions.
In its day-to-day work, the Community Impact Network convenes a variety of partners in order to help organize and facilitate the delivery of resources and services for people living in the Normandy Schools Collaborative footprint. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the St. Louis area, the Network formed and funded an emergency relief task force which included the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, Operation Food Search, Affinia Healthcare, Beyond Housing, United 4 Children, the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, the Normandy Schools Collaborative, and more. These partners received grant funding from the Network to collaborate to address immediate needs within the community—collectively addressing issues including food insecurity, rent and utility assistance, COVID-19 testing, and more.
Through this emergency response partnership, the Diaper Bank was able to distribute 112,805 diapers and 45,986 period supplies in April—and also keep on track with its longtime partners, who distributed an additional 109,646 diapers. For May, Hughes projects they will distribute another 250,000 diapers total, along with 43,000 period supplies.
“This pandemic has really solidified the Network’s place in this space,” Hughes said. The emergency grant allowed the Diaper Bank to the purchase thousands more diapers and period supplies than usual, but she is certain that distributing them would not have been possible without the Network’s partners stepping forward to assist. For example, Equity Homes—which provides opportunities for residents of the Normandy School Collaborative footprint to purchase renovated or newly constructed homes—has been sending staff over to sort, count, and wrap diapers twice per week.
“It’s like calling on your extended family for help,” said Dr. Jaison K.D. McCall, the Community Impact Network’s Managing Director. For example, he explained, “If we hadn’t started off these relationships prior to COVID, I don’t know if it would have been as successful. If Equity Homes hadn’t been in the warehouse already, they wouldn’t be allowed to go in and volunteer now, for safety reasons.”
Hughes agreed, adding, “There’s no way any one entity that’s been involved in this emergency distribution across the region could have done it without the help of each other. By coming together, we’ve been able to do fabulous things in these past two months.”
Not that everything was easy, even with partners. The Diaper Bank faced frustration initially because its delivery trucks were delayed while its sponsor, Huggies, struggled to meet retail demand. And both Hughes and McCall said the Network’s help with a simple little thing—a shrink-wrap machine—was a game-changer.
“Anything we have reached out for, the Network has done their part and more,” Hughes said. “When we ran into obstacles, there were people who stepped up and made things happen.”
Hughes said the Diaper Bank will continue to provide diapers and period supplies as long as needed. For the month of May, that includes at the Network’s Saturday food distributions at Beyond Housing in Pine Lawn as well as the St. Louis County Library branches, including the one on Natural Bridge. “With the major support we’ve received, if we have to go longer, we will be OK,” she said.
Hughes does worry that the Diaper Bank’s small staff—which is now face-to-face with hundreds of families per week at distribution events—is at increased risk of catching COVID-19, which could completely disrupt its operations.
This is a concern McCall shares, for both personal and professional reasons. But, he maintains, the Network’s staff is committed to answering the call to serve the community, just as their partners are. “My wife and I are expecting our first child,” he said, “but I go out with masks and gloves and show my partners our support at distribution events. The Diaper Bank staff are like family.”
One of the Diaper Bank’s goals since it was founded in 2014 has been to strengthen the community. Hughes believes this is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are families who are fragile now who aren’t used to being fragile,” she said. This feeling of powerlessness is hard on parents and children’s overall well-being—and Hughes is adamant about addressing this mindset through her organization’s work.
“We don’t have to empower anybody,” she said. “We have to remind people of how powerful they already are. Everybody is born with power.”
She appreciates the way the Network and its partners share this philosophy—and that makes her optimistic for the future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. “If we continue with this collaboration that we’ve done in this past two months, I can just imagine the impact we can have across the region.”
To organize and facilitate delivery of resources and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Impact Network formed and funded an emergency relief task force comprised of a variety of its partners including Operation Food Search, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, Affinia Healthcare, Beyond Housing, United 4 Children, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The partner organizations received grant funding for immediate needs within the Normandy Schools Collaborative footprint in North St. Louis County—grants which allowed the partners to collectively address issues including food insecurity, rent and utility assistance, COVID-19 testing, and more.
In addition, the Network continues to convene its four Coalitions—5byAge5, Back2Basics, Youth1st, and WOW—and to offer behind-the-scenes support to the many ongoing initiatives offered by the 85 organizations with which it has membership agreements. Through fostering authentic, trusting relationships, the Community Impact Network aims to create an environment where nonprofit social service sector providers can experience and demonstrate improved success.