The story behind DC Diaper Bank, a resource for parents

Eight years ago, when Corinne Cannon had her first child, she was surprised at just how hard parenting can be.

David Karas
DC Diaper Bank, founded by Corinne Cannon, has been set this year to distribute its 5 millionth diaper.

Corinne Cannon remembers well an especially challenging night when her first child, Jack, was an infant. He was a high-needs baby, she recalls, and she was unable to get him to stop crying and settle down – leaving her feeling frustrated and helpless.

The evening prompted Ms. Cannon to consider her own situation in the context of other mothers’ circumstances: She had support from her husband and the money to support her son. But what about mothers who perhaps hadn’t planned on having a child, and might lack one or both of those things?

“I was really floored by the physical reality of parenting, and the emotional reality of parenting,” she says. “They don’t talk about how hard it is.”

With the intent of helping other mothers in her community, Cannon began to call around to nonprofits in the area to find out what resources might be available. She learned that many nonprofits had scarce resources to offer mothers and that food stamps and funds from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) cannot be used for diapers. And yet, a baby might need eight to 10 diapers a day.

Those hard facts gave her an idea.

“I can do this; we can do this. We can solve this one,” Cannon recalls thinking to herself.

In 2010, as her son marked his first birthday, she founded DC Diaper Bank with the mission of providing diapers to families in the Washington metropolitan area. Modeled after diaper banks across the United States, DC Diaper Bank collects and distributes diapers and other care products to social service organizations already serving families in need.

“If you’re raising a child without resources, the stress and strain on both you and [your] child are huge,” Cannon says. “What we are really doing is trying to make sure that families have what they need to thrive.”

Partnering with social service organizations means that mothers and families in need potentially have more interaction with these agencies and their resources.

“We want to bring you into this larger system, and we want you to have another reason to reach out,” Cannon says. “We want this to be something that can increase the access to services.”

Sometimes a bundle of diapers, she says, can be the incentive for a family to make an appointment with a caseworker: With the financial burden of buying a pack of diapers alleviated, the family can afford the transit costs to get to that appointment. Each month, mothers can receive two packs of 25 diapers each per child.

A deep understanding

Behind Cannon’s philosophy for DC Diaper Bank is a deep understanding of what poverty entails – in particular, how poverty can affect the growth and development of a child in his or her first few years.

“It is this magical period where that child who has been welcomed into the world learns what the world is – and that world is either a place where their needs are met ... or they are in a world in which they are not confident their needs will be met,” she says.

She also maintains that the mental health of a baby’s mother is a determinant of the physical health of her child, and she says a goal of DC Diaper Bank is to let mothers know “that there is somebody fighting for you.”

Cannon is the nonprofit’s only full-time employee. She is assisted by three part-time staff members and an army of volunteers, including more than 130 ambassadors who collect diapers and other baby products to stock the shelves of the bank. Together, and with the support of donors, they distribute between 150,000 and 175,000 diapers each month to a network of more than 40 social service organizations, helping some 4,000 families on a monthly basis. The nonprofit has been set this year to distribute its 5 millionth diaper.

DC Diaper Bank also distributes baby formula, toys, and other donated items. And a new initiative, The Monthly, pairs resources for babies with feminine care products for mothers who can’t afford them.

“It is beyond the diaper,” Cannon says. “The diaper is the beginning of it, but I want to expand that view of what [it’s like to not] have what you need.”

A diaper bank partner

JoséLuis Díaz is the communications and marketing director for CCI Health & Wellness Services, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, Md. The organization is a partner of DC Diaper Bank and has distributed more than 20,000 diapers to clients through Cannon’s efforts.

“It is estimated that one third of low-income families have to cut into their food and child care budgets to be able to buy diapers,” Mr. Díaz says in an email interview. “This in turn generates anxiety and stress to the family unit, affecting the overall wellness of family members.”

He observes the difference that free diapers can make: “We can see it reflected on their faces when they receive a pack of diapers – one less thing a new mom needs to worry about, one less time that a low-income family has to decide between diapers for their newborn or food for themselves.”

New parents’ experiences

As the parents of a newborn, Hugo and Ivett struggled to make ends meet, especially after Hugo was laid off from his construction job earlier this year. When they asked around to find out who could help them afford the expensive products for their child, the couple was directed to an agency that distributes diapers from Cannon’s organization.

“With no secure employment and a newborn, the diaper donations take a huge weight off our shoulders,” Hugo says. “As new parents I never really understood how expensive many of these items for babies are. I have been lucky enough that in this time of need I was able to come across the diaper donations.”

On a similar note, Maria is the single mother of two young children and works two jobs to support her family. She is also a recipient of DC Diaper Bank products.

“Being a single mother is very hard.... You need all the help you can get,” she says. “Receiving a dependable supply of diapers gives peace of mind knowing that my babies will have clean diapers.”

(Maria and Hugo provided their comments through the organization they’ve worked with. Last names have been withheld to maintain their privacy.)

Widespread needs

On a national scale, DC Diaper Bank was one of the earlier additions to the National Diaper Bank Network and is one of its larger members. In a phone interview, the network’s chief executive officer, Joanne Goldblum, discussed research-based conclusions about diaper needs across the country.

“We found that 1 in 3 low-income moms describe themselves as sometimes not being able to change their baby’s diaper as often as they feel they need to,” she says. “It is extremely widespread.”

The need has not always generated a great deal of awareness or attention, says Ms. Goldblum, who founded a diaper bank in New Haven, Conn., a dozen years ago. She credits people like Cannon with helping to turn things around, and she praises Cannon for her leadership in such efforts and her ability “to talk really clearly and passionately about the issue.”

Goldblum also discusses products from a larger perspective. “We think that diapers and other hygiene products are really a window into how poor people in our own communities really are,” she says.

“The thing about giving people the concrete things that they need is that you are really giving people dignity,” Goldblum says. “[Cannon’s] impact is so much bigger than a diaper or a tampon. It goes so far beyond that concrete thing, because so frequently that concrete thing keeps families from being able to get out of poverty.”

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How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups aiding families:

The Hope Alliance works to empower impoverished people so they can create sustainable change for their families and communities. Take action: Donate funds for health-care equipment in Peru, Guatemala, and Haiti.

Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition combats human trafficking and slavery at the US-Mexican border. Take action: Help the parents of young sex trafficking victims in San Diego.

Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children aims to improve pediatric and maternal health in the developing world. Take action: Volunteer for this organization in Ecuador.

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