Barbara Riley is a foster parent who has adopted six children. On a limited income, any help she receives is appreciated, especially for the foster children such as a 2-year-old she’s caring for who’s still in diapers.
Tommy Johnson has grandchildren living with him, including a 20-month-old who wears diapers. It’s hard to stretch his income to cover the youngsters’ needs, he said, noting that it isn’t enough.
Faynita Mosley is a mother of four, including two little ones, works part time and struggles to make ends meet.
Riley, Johnson and Mosley get a stack of diapers each month at St. Anthony’s Food Pantry in south St. Louis, enabling their babies and toddlers to have a healthier start to life. The diapers are supplied to the parish St. Vincent de Paul-run operation by the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, which helps streamline the collection and distribution of diapers to low-income families in the St. Louis region. With donated diapers and financial donations, the Diaper Bank supplies 32 St. Louis organizations serving low-income women and children. Generally, every child served receives between 25-50 diapers a month.
Jessica Adams heard about “diaper need” in 2013 and was taken aback by the statistics — one in three women in the country routinely lacks sufficient diapers for their children, according to the National Diaper Bank Network.
But she was moved to do something about it because of personal experience. She was divorced in 2010, right when she was starting graduate school. She had four children and no income. Her youngest, age 2, wore diapers.
“We got help for almost everything,” Adams recalled. The Society of St. Vincent DePaul, St. Catherine Laboure Parish and the Ladies of Charity all pitched in to help. They received Medicaid and help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).
“But nobody had diapers,” she said. “And no one had money to help with diapers.”
Later, in 2014, after becoming financially stable, she started the Diaper Bank at her dining room table, distributing about 4,000 diapers that year. She moved the program out of her house in October of 2015. The program celebrated the distribution of its one millionth diaper on Feb. 17. Last year, the Diaper Bank distributed 550,000 diapers and in 2018 it has committed to distributing 1.5 million diapers. “We’re still not even scratching the surface of the needs,” Adams said, with the program serving about 2,500 children a month in the metro area.
“Life in poverty is stressful in and of itself,” Adams said. “Then you add this pain of not being able to meet your kids’ needs on top of that and this feeling that you’re not a good enough parent or not doing a good enough job, and the stress builds and builds until you’ve reached this toxic point in the household.”
Dr. Ken Haller, SLUCare pediatrician at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, said there is a growing body of evidence that when children do not have their basic needs met — their need for food, shelter, comfort — they have higher rates of lifelong health issues, and the younger a child is when these problems arise, the more profound the effects.
“These are not only the understandable emotional issues of feeling abandoned but actual physical health problems like asthma, allergies, obesity, high blood pressure, and many more,” Haller said. “Essentially, the young child’s body turns on emergency genes and mechanisms to deal with the reality that ‘I’m on my own’ by increasing reactivity to environmental realities and going into a permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is often called toxic stress.”
Their parents experience the stress as well, the pediatrician said. “Imagine what it must be like to have a baby at home and know that you may not be able to feed her, give her a warm home, or even change her diaper when it is full and messy? The stress on these parents who feel so helpless can be overwhelming and can cause them to shut down emotionally because their reality is too dire to face head on. And then this cycle perpetuates itself. That’s why the service that the St. Louis Diaper Bank provides is so vital. For a parent in poverty, just knowing they do not have to worry about providing this one basic necessity for their infant may be enough to give them to faith and hope to go on one more day.”
The partner agencies serve families living at or below the poverty line and offer programs with case management. The goal is for the diapers to be paired with services stabilizing and strengthening families. “Rather than create a new distribution system just for diapers, we want to integrate the diapers into programs that are working and serving families,” Adams said. “We call diapers a gateway resource and want our partners to use diapers as not only an incentive to sign up for programs but to stay engaged in programming for the length of time they’re eligible for it.”
A single mom working a couple jobs who stresses over making rent and paying utilities doesn’t usually have time to focus on resources providing for the emotional and cognitive development of her child. But when they find out programs such as Parents as Teachers offer diapers, then they sign up for it. “Families then are getting the diapers they need and also these other amazing support to help them raise healthy kids,” Adams said.
Chanelle Blair had a tough time after the birth of her daughter, Cheyenne, 12 months ago. Blair had a Caeserean delivery and ended up with an infection that caused a lengthy loss of time from work. And her husband, who injured his back in the military, misses work when his back issues flare up.
The Blairs get visits from the Parents and Teachers program — a lifeline for a new mom whose own mother died young. The regular visitor from the program “is like extended family,” Blair said, with advice on teething, solid foods and much more. She also brings much-valued books, pamphlets and a pack of diapers, a valuable commodity when she had to catch up on expenses while out of work.
Adams, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in south St. Louis and a seventh-grade Parish School of Religion teacher at St. Catherine Laboure, has a master’s degree in social work from St. Louis University and a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Aquinas Institute of Theology. She earlier worked in adult and family faith formation at St. Catherine Laboure. “My faith has always been a big part of my life,” she said. “The social mission and teaching of the Church is a guiding principle for me. I’m very proud to be part of a faith tradition that has justice at the center,” she said.
Queen of Peace Center, a family centered behavioral health care provider for women with addiction, their children and families, receives about 1,000 diapers a month from the Diaper Bank. Elizabeth Evers, a family community support specialist at the Catholic Charities agency, said “it means everything to the mothers” in the center’s programs. “We work with the women to ensure that their children and families are taken care of so they can concentrate on their treatment.”
A supply of diapers can impact a woman’s treatment if she’s worried about how to provide them for her children, Evers said. The diapers are used in the center’s residential and outpatient treatment programs. “We focus on hope, dignity and respect for all of our clients, and a woman who can’t provide the basic needs for her child does not feel very dignified and hope fades pretty fast,” Evers said.
Before the partnership with the Diaper Bank, Queen of Peace referred the women to a pantry or other agency that might have diapers available. “They’d have to get their children, their baby, out in the weather, catch public transportation if they had that, and stand in line and hope they didn’t run out,” Evers explained. “Now these mothers are able to provide for their children and focus on what they need to get themselves healthy, working and focusing on the long term.”
Kathy Meyer, a board member who helps pack diapers in the warehouse, looked for volunteer work after she retired and hit the jackpot. “It really is the best thing I’ve ever done. I get so much more out of it than I give,” the member of St. Dominic Savio Parish in Affton said. “And the organizations we work with, these are such dedicated people. We can make such an impact in St. Louis to help with diaper need.”
Another volunteer, Carol Schepers of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Brentwood, a self-described “sucker for babies” said “I can’t imagine the stress a mother could be under when she has money either for food or diapers or keep the heat on or diapers, those kinds of choices. It just breaks my heart to hear that.”