On Monday mornings the staff at SouthSide Early Childhood Center typically saw “diaper need” firsthand when some of the infants and toddlers arrived after the weekend with diaper rash.
On other mornings staff sometimes greeted a child wearing a full diaper and would notice it was the same one the child had worn leaving care the afternoon before.
The staff at SouthSide in St. Louis knew these families well, said Mary Clare Monahan, a social worker at the child care center. These parents, many of them new immigrants, were trying their best.
“It’s not a neglect issue,” Monahan said. “They just really don’t have the resources at home to be changing those diapers often enough.”
That changed with the help of the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, a nonprofit that didn’t exist two years ago and now is distributing nearly 30,000 diapers a month to groups that assist young children and families.
Last April the diaper bank partnered with SouthSide. The child care center was already providing free diapers through its federally supported Early Head Start program. But now, about 60 families were able to take home at least one, sometimes two, packages of 25 diapers every month to help tide them over on weekends and weeknights.
“The parents were really excited, and they also seemed relieved,” Monahan said.
Jessica Adams, executive director of the diaper bank, said the partnership showed how something as simple as a diaper could make a difference to families and organizations dealing with the chronic and multiple stresses of poverty.
“If we can take away that particular big stress for parents, they can better focus on getting other supports and making things better for themselves and their children,” she said.
The diaper bank is now gearing up for a regional diaper drive in honor of “Diaper Need Awareness Week,” Sept. 26-Oct. 2. The bank hopes to collect enough diapers and cash donations to increase its stock by 100,0000.
During the week, Schnucks Markets Inc. will offer a buy-one-get-one-free deal for its store-brand diapers and encourage customers to donate diapers or cash in its stores. Other events in the area offer chances for donors to drop off diapers, including a “Fill the Truck Day” in Brentwood and a fundraiser at a local brewery.
Founded as a nonprofit in 2014 in response to tremendous diaper need in the region, the diaper bank raises money to buy diapers in bulk at deep discount. It distributes them through 10 partners that work directly with children and families.
It encourages schools, civic and church groups to conduct diaper drives to stock the bank. In the year to come, it hopes to expand its reach with new partnerships, particularly with child care centers such as SouthSide.
So far this year, the diaper bank purchased 150,000 diapers at a bulk-rate discount. The bank expanded so rapidly that it outgrew its donated warehouse space and will be moving to midtown St. Louis after an anonymous donor pledged $12,000 in annual rent for a 1,200 square-foot facility.
Adams attributes the expansion to the region’s growing understanding of the impact of chronic or “toxic stress” on parents living in or near poverty. That stress is profound for parents who cannot afford clean diapers, while caring for a fussy, uncomfortable baby.
Studies suggest diaper need is not only a health issue for children but can lead to maternal depression, further putting a child at risk for future developmental and behavioral problems.
Diaper need grew so relevant this year that it reached the Legislature.
Missouri lawmakers approved $100,000 to help the state’s three regional diaper banks. That budget item, however, was withheld by Gov. Jay Nixon along with numerous others because of an unanticipated shortfall in state revenue.
Adams said the partnerships that developed with the diaper bank over the past year were varied. One of them is with Hancock Place/Bayless Parents as Teachers, which sends parent educators into homes and conducts school-based parenting support groups.
Erika Anderson, coordinator of that Parents as Teachers group, said parent educators now brought packs of diapers on their visits. She said they were a welcome incentive for busy parents sometimes working multiple jobs to keep their appointments.
“If we’re able to make those visits and keep those visits and do those screenings and show those parents positive learning activities and build that parent partnership, then it helps the children,” she said.
Diaper need is still dire in the St. Louis region, said Aimee Travers of Bethany Christian Services, which partnered with the diaper bank earlier this year. The organization runs a “Free Diaper Friday” the first Friday of every month at its headquarters, 1300 Hampton Avenue.
The walk-in program enables anyone to get a pack of diapers for each of their children or grandchildren — a service that Adams said the diaper bank would like to replicate in another area of need in St. Louis County.
Until Bethany partnered with the diaper bank, Travers said, the organization was spending about $2,000 a month from its operating budget on diapers, and leaders knew they could not sustain that. Now, it can serve more than double the walk-ins. Bethany distributes about 8,500 diapers every month and could increase that to 10,000.
Travers said it was not uncommon for about 20 parents and grandparents to show up an hour before the doors open at 8 a.m. Some come from as far as Jefferson County and north St. Louis County, she said.
“Ninety five percent of the diapers are gone by 11 or 11:30 in the morning,” she said. “At that point, they’ll take any size they can get even if it doesn’t fit, just to have something for their children.”