Awareness of the issue kind of crept up on South Side minister Bridget Outlaw after five years of operating a food pantry in the poverty-plagued Auburn neighborhood.
“In the summer, we’d get a lot of women coming in with babies, and I’m a child magnet. So I’d hold them and notice they were wet all the time,” says Outlaw, founder/CEO of Daughters of Destiny Inc., a nonprofit social service agency.
“I’d go up to mothers and say, ‘Your baby needs changing,’ and they’d give me a blank stare, like, ‘Duh. We don’t have diapers.’ I was shocked to realize diapers cost $20 to $25, and they can barely afford rent,” Outlaw says.
It’s how she entered the world of “diaper disparity,” an issue advocates have long worked to bring to the forefront. Through their efforts, some 10 states have passed legislation exempting diapers from sales or use taxes. But in Congress, laws to provide government-subsidized diapers for needy families failed twice in recent years.
“Diapers are really expensive,” no less than President Barack Obama asserted last March in announcing his administration’s effort to help the nearly one in three American families struggling to afford disposable diapers.
That effort involved donations from the biggest brands operating in a $6.2 billion domestic diaper market, partnerships with online distributors and nonprofits serving such families, and exploring ways to eradicate the “diaper divide.”
Outlaw, a minister and founder of the New Global Destiny International World Deliverance Ministry on the South Side, established a diaper bank at her organization’s headquarters in the West Lawn neighborhood in February 2015. But a diaper bank needs diapers.
And Outlaw, who’d been able to move heaven and earth to accomplish every ministry for the poor she set her mind on, found after nearly two years that her determination and resources couldn’t attract sufficient diaper donations.
“It was hard to get people to understand what ‘diaper disparity’ is, even harder to break into the diaper bank network. I almost gave up,” she says, before angels cloaked as nurses at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital stepped in.
“Around Thanksgiving, they started sending diapers nonstop. By year’s end, they gave us 11,100 diapers, then got Huggies to match that. I couldn’t believe it. My diaper bank hasn’t gone without diapers since they started helping us. Those nurses have been such a blessing!”
The 11,100 matching donation from Huggies is due to arrive Tuesday.
The nurses who made it happen know a little something about diaper disparity as members of the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, a national organization promoting the health of women and newborns.
The group has for the past three years been involved in efforts to eradicate the diaper divide, partnering with the National Diaper Bank Network founded by Huggies in 2011. The network comprises 300-plus diaper banks nationwide that monthly serve 336,000 children from needy families.
According to national statistics, the lowest-income quintile of families spend 14 percent of their income on diapers, which unlike food or health insurance, aren’t covered by programs like WIC, SNAP or Medicaid.
“The issue is becoming more visible, but there’s still much work to be done,” says Kim Armour, director of women’s health, obstetrics and neonatology at Prentice. “In 2015, AWHONN issued a call to action, and one of our nurses, Deborah Roache, came to me and asked if she could coordinate a diaper drive.”
That first year, they collected a couple thousand diapers. Determined to step it up in 2016, the nurses held another drive, then solicited the hospital’s buy-in through Northwestern’s Season of Giving program, so that everyone from physicians and clerical staff to families and friends were donating.
They also set up an Amazon.com wish list, so donors could purchase diapers shipped directly to Outlaw’s diaper bank, which Armour had found listed in the diaper bank network. Then they called Huggies to beg for the matching donation.
“We called Ms. Outlaw and told her we had a diaper pickup for her but didn’t tell her how many, just told her to bring a van,” says Roache, a clinical nurse in labor and delivery at Prentice.
“We had over 7,000 diapers locked away. I had to wheel them down on patient stretchers. She was speechless and overjoyed with emotion at how this was going to help the women she serves. And of course, that makes our day because this is our goal,” Roache says. “As nurses, this is what we do; try to make life better for those we come in contact with.”
Outlaw, whose last diaper drive netted only 10 diapers, can’t thank the nurses enough for partnering with her to impact the potential health consequences — children suffer from severe rashes to urinary tract or staph infections.
“We’re fighting a war out here, on poverty. Diaper disparity is a significant part,” Outlaw says.