* Editor's Note: “They” is a nonbinary gender identifier, a popular pronoun for transgender individuals, and throughout the article refers to Gardner.
In Kalamazoo County, more than one in three families struggle to provide diapers for their children, and the problem is about more than hygiene. Not having clean diapers can lead to myriad bigger problems, from diaper rash and staph infections to a mother’s postpartum depression to a child’s learning delay, according to a 2010 study by the National Diaper Bank Network and the diaper brand Huggies.
Infants use about 240 diapers per month, and a year’s supply of disposable diapers costs $936 per child. Meanwhile the two most supportive governmental programs for impoverished families — SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that offers Bridge Cards for food purchases) and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) — do not provide money for hygiene products like diapers and wipes.
As a result, two local organizations are working to make diapers available for low-income families in the greater Kalamazoo area. A new diaper bank at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and a diaper drive through the Elizabeth Upjohn Community Healing Center have so far collected 84,000 diapers to give to local families.
The St. Luke’s Diaper Bank was born out of the moment on Mother’s Day 2015 when Jax Lee Gardner read an article about the problems that arise from a parent’s inability to buy enough diapers.
“When a parent feels like they can’t adequately care for their child, they are more likely to distance themselves from their child out of feelings of guilt or shame,” explains Gardner. “We know that these early bonding experiences have an effect on a person their whole life.”
At the time, Gardner was working in the history and social science departments at Kalamazoo College. As a certified birth doula, an anti-racism activist and the parent of two young sons, they* wanted to do something. In the summer of 2015, Gardner was chosen for a staff fellowship through the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership to research infant mortality and wellness in Kalamazoo and create change.
“I did some publishing around anti-racist doula care, and then I decided to run a community-wide diaper drive,” says Gardner, who is the Arcus Center manager.
“There was no (diaper) bank per se at that point. It was just a drive, and I saw it as an opportunity for education and advocacy and to generate some ideas around whether a diaper bank would be welcome and sustainable in the community.”
St. Luke’s was chosen as a home for the drive because Gardner’s wife, Renee Lee Gardner, is the church’s faith formation minister and their family attends the church.
That first diaper drive collected more than 26,000 diapers in one month. This year’s drive, which occurred from Sept. 11 to Oct. 11, collected 25,000 diapers.
“I basically led that first diaper drive, and I kind of didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Gardner says. “It was awesome. It was a lot of work. Diapers are pretty large to move, so I was constantly collecting the diapers and moving them and trying to keep them organized. I think the biggest payoff was the distribution day, when we actually took the diapers out of storage and brought them to the recipient agencies,” which included YWCA Kalamazoo and Goodwill, for its Life Guides program that assists families as they try to escape poverty.
With a pending grant from the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, the St. Luke’s Diaper Bank will be able to buy diapers for the upcoming year and offer two weeks’ worth of diapers twice a month to anyone in need through the YWCA, starting in December.
Sally Reames, executive director at the Elizabeth Upjohn Community Healing Center, also became aware of the dire diaper problem in the Kalamazoo area in 2013 shortly after the center started its Parents as Teachers (PAT) program. The program sends educators into parents’ homes to work on early childhood development skills (May 2016 Encore).
When Reames asked the PAT educators what they needed to be effective, they replied that they needed diapers.
“Parents don’t have to let us in,” Reames says. “It’s a voluntary program. Our staff needs to have something with them that says, ‘I come in peace.’ It’s really great when they have a gift like a book (or) a pack of diapers and wipes to say that we are there to help and support them.”
The same year that Reames became aware of the dire need for diapers, she found $999 in the center’s budget to buy them. The center’s diaper program got a boost in 2015 when Kath Paul, owner of Kalamazoo Stripping & Derusting Co., saw Reames on television discussing local low-income families’ need for diapers. Paul “picked up the phone and left a message for Reames: The Kalamazoo Stripper was bringing diapers" (July 2016 Encore). She and her team collected 30,790 diapers that year. She is hoping to collect 50,000 this holiday season.
The Healing Center now provides diaper storage space for PAT educators and other partner organizations such as the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency and the YWCA. However, Reames says anyone in need who shows up would not be turned away. “We don’t really have any specific requirements. It is more based on need,” she says. “If you need ’em, we got ’em.”
Gardner says that diaper need is “purely a financial resource issue. It’s not an education issue. It’s not about parents who are not changing their babies’ diapers out of ignorance. This is about parents with scarce resources stretching the diaper timeline out. These are not bad parents. These are resilient parents.”
Most child care centers, even free and subsidized facilities, require parents to provide at least a day’s supply of disposable diapers, Gardner says. Many parents cannot go to work or school if they are unable to leave their babies at child care. In Michigan, 65 percent of mothers in the workforce have infants, according to the National Diaper Bank Network.
“As a parent of young children, I will say that I know what it feels like when it’s midnight and you have a child that’s in a soiled diaper and you need to change them and you have no diapers left,” Gardner says. “I have come to that moment and am fortunate to have resources to get into my car… use my (credit) card to buy diapers at the 24-hour store, and come home and change my kid.” Gardner also notes that they have a co-parent who can stay with their other child.
“There’s a lot of privilege in that narrative, right?” they continue. “I can’t imagine if I didn’t have a dollar to my name and I didn’t have transportation and I didn’t have a co-parent to watch my other sleeping kid.”
The St. Luke’s Diaper Bank is a part of the Kalamazoo Infant Mortality Community Action Initiative (KIMCAI), an organization run out of the YWCA, with 50 partners addressing the high percentage of black infant deaths in the city.
“Although infant death is not directly related to diaper hygiene, it can have an impact on the health of the baby,” says Grace Lubwama, executive director of YWCA Kalamazoo. “Having access to diapers reduces the stress of families, especially families that are struggling to access other resources that include both health care and basic needs.”
The work of the Healing Center and the St. Luke’s Diaper Bank shows just how limited the government response to diaper need is. On the federal level, legislation was introduced in 2015 to make federal grant funds available to states to create diaper-distribution methods through a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The proposed law — the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act of 2015 — was introduced in the House of Representatives but has yet to make it out of committee.
In the meantime, informal and formal diaper banks across the country are trying to meet this huge need. Gardner believes that there is no such thing as too many donated diapers.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t have the Kalamazoo Diaper Promise,” Gardner says, alluding to the Kalamazoo Promise, the program that provides college tuition for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools. “What if we had a thriving enough diaper bank that families (in need) in Kalamazoo didn’t have to buy diapers?”