Reverend Philip Battle, Jr. learned his lesson back in 1994: when mothers and grandmothers tell you they can’t get diapers, you listen to them. Then a pastor in the Toledo, Ohio area, Pastor Battle was meeting at his church with women raising young children on their own and asked them what the congregation could do that no other agency was doing to assist them in raising their children?
“They all responded at once, like a choir, ‘Diapers!’ My initial reaction was that they had to be wrong. There’s no way that could be true, I thought. But it turns out they were right,” he says. “It just never occurred to me that something as basic as diapers would be such a problem.”
Pastor Battle had to catch up to what the mothers and grandmothers knew from their own life experiences: regulations under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (once known as “food stamps”) bar recipients from using funds to purchase any non-food item, including essentials such as diapers or baby wipes. Disposable diapers are expensive – even discounted store brands cost $80 to $100 per month per child, and children typically stay in diapers until age three.
By the estimates of the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank, the organization founded by Battle and his wife, Cathy, in 2012, the “diaper gap” is 77,000 per day in Allegheny County alone. The Bank provides adult diapers, too, for older people who can’t afford them and, as a result, are confined to their homes.
Those basic calculations around cost and demand have driven Pittsburgh’s community foundation to make diaper access one of the lynchpins in a grant-making strategy flowing from a new organizing principle called “100 Percent Pittsburgh” that commits about 60 percent of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s resources to closing a significant gap between those who are benefiting from a revitalized economy and those who have been shut out. Since its inception 70 years ago, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s grant-making priorities have included basic needs to help individuals and families achieve self-sufficiency. As one of the nation’s oldest community foundations, The Pittsburgh Foundation is also one of the oldest – and the largest in Pennsylvania – with assets of $1.2 billion and more than 2,000 individual donor funds.
The diaper distribution initiative comes out of Small and Mighty, a grant-making program developed from an 18-month review the Foundation made of its own grant-making practices. The Foundation found that, though two-thirds of the region’s 3,100 nonprofits have budgets of less than $100,000, only 18 percent of the proposals the Foundation funded in 2015 were from that group of smaller non-profits, many of which are dedicated to filling unmet basic needs.
“Our 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle is grounded in the idea that we should turn to affected communities for solutions,” says Senior Program Officer Michelle McMurray, who leads the Small and Mighty program. “But in reviewing our own grant-making history, we now realize we haven’t been doing enough to fund small nonprofits that were started in and are run by people who live and work in the community.”
In December, $230,000 in Small and Mighty grants were awarded to 18 nonprofits with budgets of $600,000 or less. These grants, which range in size from $5,000 to $15,000, include operating dollars meant to position nimble nonprofits to significantly increase their impact.
“Many of these organizations are crowded out by larger nonprofits that have more resources and contacts in going for financial support,” says Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King. “By intentionally providing operating support – something that many foundations tend to avoid doing with smaller organizations – we’re increasing their capacity to provide those they serve with more opportunities to participate in the local economy.”
For the Diaper Bank, a $15,000 Small and Mighty grant has led to the hiring of the organization’s first employee, who works part-time to coordinate administrative duties, including data management, tracking donations and scheduling pick-up and delivery services.
For young children and babies, the lack of clean diapers leads to increased risk of skin rashes and urinary tract infections. When this happens, a child health issue can suddenly become an economic crisis for poor families. Most child care centers require families to supply diapers for their own children, so coming up short also prevents parents from going to work or school – a significant setback for those trying to climb out of poverty.
The stakes explain why there is an army of volunteers at the Diaper Bank. Supervising it all is Cathy Battle, who works three days a week as a respiratory therapist, spends Sunday in church, and then serves as executive director of the Bank for the remainder of the work week. Last year, she and the Bank’s volunteers collected and distributed 181,000 diapers out of the organization’s warehouse in Point Breeze. Pastor Battle chairs the board while running the church and pursuing his doctoral degree.
“Our most dedicated volunteers are 70- or 80-years-old, or working full time,” says the Diaper Bank’s outreach consultant, Diane Wuycheck, “Without operating support to fund the Mission Logistics partnership, we’d be driving diapers around to drop-off sites in personal vehicles.”
The extra operating support also has positioned Cathy to unlock a potential donation of 250,000 diaper from Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Huggies, this year. She hopes that the operating grant will help more people understand how challenging the diaper gap really is.
“One in three Americans are struggling to provide diapers to their babies, who are the most innocent . . . and they are our future. We have to do whatever it takes to help them,” she says.
Single mom Kristin Loudermilk, 36, of Pittsburgh’s Mt. Oliver neighborhood, is among the thousands of who have benefited from Diaper Bank donations. In 2015, Kristin was having trouble making ends meet for herself, her infant daughter, Ella, and her older daughter, Aliya. Ella was healthy but had arrived eight weeks prematurely. Things hadn’t worked out with Ella’s dad, and Kristin was, as she puts it, “feeling really down in the dumps” until a friend told her that the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mt. Oliver had free diapers for families in need. At first she was reluctant to accept the help.
“I was used to helping out other people. Ella’s dad stuck me financially, and nothing was going right. But when I walked into the church, they welcomed me with open arms,” says Kristin.
Every month since then, she’s gone back to accept diapers that come to the church from the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank. The extra support was the emotional and financial boost Kristin needed. Though she’s not back with Ella’s dad, she’s got a new partner, Jon, who is like a father to her girls. He takes care of Ella during the day while Kristin works at a job she loves with the Youth Advocate Program, which serves teens and young adults who are at risk of or involved with the juvenile justice system.
Ella, now 2-years-old, is exceeding all of her developmental milestones and Aliya, 12, has taken on the big sister role with pride. The help they receive inspires Kristin to donate gently used items from her daughters back to the church to help other families in need.
“That someone thought of families like mine, and the struggles we deal with on a daily basis, and realized that there are kids who really need diapers,” says Kristin. “That is just awesome to me.”
Kitty Julian is senior program officer for The Pittsburgh Foundation.
The Pittsburgh Foundation
Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank