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Go Ask Mom

With 310,000 bottoms covered, Diaper Bank sets sights on expansion

Posted January 26, 2015

A few years ago, Michelle Old was up late in a local hospital, tending to her then foster son, who was regularly under a doctor's care because he could not fight off simple infections, including severe diaper rashes. She'd change the baby's diaper 15 to 20 times a day, not worrying or wondering where the next diaper would come from.

"One night, at the hospital, I just started thinking about everything that could happen if we didn't have the next diaper," said Old, who went on to adopt the little boy with her husband. He's now 3.

Old had long known about the need for diapers. As an owner of the Kidcycle consignment sale, she'd collected diaper donations as an incentive for deal hunters to shop earlier than the general public. She would gather as many as 6,000 diapers during the event and donate them to local groups. But she noticed a couple of things. The groups didn't have the space for the diapers. One nonprofit director stored the diapers in her own garage. And once word got out that diapers were available, they went really fast.

At a cost of about $100 a month to diaper a baby, one in three families don't have enough money to keep their babies clean and dry. That means some babies go without regular diaper changes, leading to uncomfortable diaper rashes or serious infections. Some parents manage with one diaper a day or even craft them from napkins and plastic wrap. Babies cry from discomfort. Parents are depressed or angry they can't provide.

Seeing her little boy struggle brought the seriousness of the issue home for Old.

"When he was discharged from the hospital, I said to my husband, 'I think I'm going to start a diaper bank.' And he said, 'sure you are.'" Old said.

The reality of the need for diapers blew up any of Old's plans for creating a small bank, which collects diapers and distributes them to agencies who help needy families. She expected to pass out 50,000 diapers in the first year. In reality, the Durham-based Diaper Bank of North Carolina handed out 209,000 diapers in the first year from June 2013 to June 2014. The group has distributed a total of nearly 311,000 diapers since June 2013.

And Old has growth plans. Late last year, she forged a partnership with the Piedmont Diaper Bank. Starting this month, that bank will now be known as the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, Greater Triad and support agencies in Forsyth, Guilford, Davie, Davidson, Randolph, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties. The collaboration will help the groups to simplify operations, streamline processes and start applying for more grant money.

Old also is working to open up a Diaper Bank of North Carolina, Lower Cape Fear branch to serve Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties. She hopes it will open in February.

"The goal is to grow into every county in North Carolina," she said. "We want to make sure every county is supported in some way."

Old, who quit her full-time job to run the bank, has done all of this with limited funding and support. The group has been funded entirely through community donations and small grants. The largest grant of $5,000 came from Duke's Doing Good in the Neighborhood program. The Diaper Bank runs nearly exclusively on volunteer labor other than a bookkeeper, who works 10 hours a month. Old, as director, earns a stipend of $1,000 a month.

Diaper banks are a relatively new phenomenon. There were just a handful five years ago across the country. Today, there are nearly 100. The Diaper Bank of North Carolina is an affiliate partner of the National Diaper Bank Network. The partnership means that the group will get a giant truckload of diapers - 600,000 to 800,000 - this year.

That's a big impact for local families and their babies. WIC, food stamps and other social service programs don't cover the cost of diapers for families who are struggling.

While cloth diapering can be a cheaper alternative for families once the initial diapers are purchased, it's often impractical for struggling families to use the reusable option. WIC and food stamps also don't cover the cleaning supplies needed to wash the diapers, Old said.

Public laundromats don't allow customers to wash cloth diapers there. And most daycare centers require parents to provide disposable diapers, not cloth diapers. But, if a family does have the resources to care for cloth diapers, but not the money to buy them, the Diaper Bank does provide that initial bundle of cloth to get them started, Old said.

"I think a lot of people  do not realize that it's absolutely the truth that the majority of families that are accessing our diapers are working families," Old said. "Most are working one or two jobs and they are still struggling."

She's gotten a lot of calls from teachers and military families, asking for help because they can't afford diapers.

"That just breaks my heart," she said.

Helping families with diapers means more than just clean bottoms. Local agencies that distribute the diapers can't require families to attend a meeting or sign up for a group, for instance. But they can be used as an incentive to get help from local groups, Old said. At the Duke Outpatient Clinic, officials have seen a higher percentage of kids getting their immunizations when they go in to get diapers. Through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides shelter for homeless families, parents have been able to keep their jobs because they have diapers to send with their children to daycare.

"I didn't expect to grow this fast and this quickly," said Old, who has three kids at home.

During the first year, she focused on working with local agencies and building the program.

"Now that we have all of that down, we have a very good model set in place," she said. "Now we are looking at sustainability. How can we sustain what we have built? If we can't sustain it, it's not worth anything to anybody."

The bank did make international news last spring when thieves stole as many as 13,000 diapers. Individuals and businesses donated thousands to make up for the loss. Police never arrested anybody for the thefts.

I think it brought out awareness about diaper need that people didn’t realize," she said. "It had its upswing. It was pretty shocking when I walked in and all of that was gone."

Despite the long hours, hard work and shoestring budget, Old said she can't imagine doing anything else.

"This fills me more than anything has every filled me," she said. "It just feeds a part of me that I never realized that I needed to feed. This is my life’s work."

But she also knows she's not doing it on her own.

"It's powerful. It's very tangible for the community," she said. "I'm not doing this alone. I'm doing this with 1,800 volunteers who come every week and wrap diapers."

There are plenty of opportunities for individuals and groups to help out at the bank. From 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the bank has a standing need for volunteers to wrap up diapers and get them ready for the agencies that distribute them. Old also works with volunteer groups on the weekends and in the evenings, including youth groups, playgroups, Scout groups and more.

There is no age requirement for volunteers. Children are welcome. In fact, Old has a small play area for kids where they can hang while their parents help out. But Old said even toddlers can help, carrying packs of diapers back and forth.

She also welcomes diaper donations. Sizes 1, 2 and 6 are the group's biggest need. The large shipments that come thanks to the group's affiliation with the national organization carry the other sizes.

The Diaper Bank's website has more information about volunteering and diaper donations.

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.

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