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'There’s a diaper need, and I don’t know what to do': A family in need is often just one job loss away

'You need to tell that story, that 1 in 3 families cannot afford to keep their babies clean and dry.'

A decade ago, Cathy Battle’s husband, the Rev. Philip Battle, came home after his meeting with mothers and grandmothers at New Light Baptist Church in Pittsburgh.

All these years later, Cathy can still recount word for word their conversation. Life-changing moments tend to be like that.

The pastor had asked women a simple question: What could be done for you that no one else is doing?

In unison, they gave the same answer: diapers.

“We researched it,” she told me in a phone interview this week. “There was no help with diapers. Everybody had to buy their own. So, we collected 3,500 diapers, which we thought was a lot, and gave them out on Community Day.”

It was not nearly enough.

Babies were in need.

Babies.

'There’s a diaper need, and I don’t know what to do'

Cathy was working full time as a respiratory therapist, but she could not look away. She called the National Diaper Bank Network, which had been founded just a year earlier by Joanne Goldblum, with the support of Huggies, which donates more than 20 million diapers a year.

“I’m in Pittsburgh,” Cathy told Jane Dennett, who answered the phone. “There’s a diaper need, and I don’t know what to do.”

A mother shops for diapers.

Dennett’s answer: Go out and raise awareness. “She told me, 'You need to tell that story, that 1 in 3 families cannot afford to keep their babies clean and dry.' ”

So, for a year, that’s what the Battles did.

“At least three days a week, we rolled out of bed, and we networked,” Cathy said. “We went to the rotary, we went to the Chamber (of Commerce), we went to other networking groups, we spoke at churches. We told the story, and people were so surprised. They thought WIC covered it. They thought SNAP did. They thought there was government assistance. I would always hear, ‘How did this get missed?’ ”

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In 2012, they founded the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank (WPADB). Last year, Cathy became its executive director.

“That very first year, we gave out 16,000 diapers,” she said. “To this day, we have never purchased any diapers on our own because we’re telling the story.” Last year, WPADB distributed 2 million diapers to more than 12,000 families.

People tend to be generous once they’re aware of the need, she said. “It's a baby. It’s a baby that didn’t even ask to be here. It’s a baby that is as innocent as you can get. They know no color, they know nothing. All they want is love, and that baby’s our future. It’s up to us to help with that baby.”

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I first wrote about the nationwide diaper need in 2015, after reading about a study that showed an inability to buy diapers was a leading cause of mental health problems among new moms. In interviews, I met mothers who were trying to wash disposable diapers to reuse them, and forgoing diapers when they ran out. Like all mothers, women in poverty love their children and want to provide the best care. Too often, their inability to afford diapers leads to depression, because they cannot provide the basic needs of their babies. 

This is how I got to know Troy Moore, who is chief of external affairs at the National Diaper Bank Network. For years, we have been talking about the need for diapers. The network is the member umbrella for more than 225 diaper bank programs, 25 of which make up the Black Diaper Bank Coalition, and nearly 5,500 partner agencies. Last year, Moore said, the diaper network distributed 186 million diapers and helped more than 254,000 children a month.

People tend to be generous with diaper donations once they know there is a need.

The network’s website is a treasure trove of resources for those who want to help. In less than minute, I found my state and contact information for every diaper bank in it. With one additional click, I could download a diaper drive toolkit for those who want to host an effort in their communities.

Bad luck can be a job loss away

Because I’ve written about this issue before, I know to respond to those who insist cloth diapers would solve the problem for these families. There are many logistical reasons this often cannot work. Most families living in poverty do not have their own washer and dryer, and many do not own cars. Laundromats can be miles away. Most day cares require disposable diapers.

Also, as the pandemic has taught us, bad luck is often just one job loss away.

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“You never know when you’re going to be in that situation,” Cathy Battle told me. “It can happen to anyone.” Like so many diaper banks in America, hers had to shift to drive-through distribution. Three times in 2020, and twice in 2021, volunteers distributed 150,000 diapers within two hours. Each family got a month’s supply of 200 diapers, and baby wipes.

A baby having its diaper changed.

“So many people came through and said how this had helped them because they’re out of work or lost their jobs and they never thought they would be there,” she said. “We would hear their stories as they drove through the line.”

Cathy is full of stories because she listens to the families she helps. One mother’s story has stayed with her for a decade now. Her 1-year-old baby had a fever, and because she already knew Battle, she asked for her help. Battle went with her to the emergency room, where the baby was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection.

“Because she wasn’t changing the diapers often enough,” Battle said. She never mentioned that to the mother. “I just made sure she had diapers from there on out.”

We’re talking about babies, dear readers.

Babies.

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz