Published November 20, 2020
On any given Friday afternoon this past spring, you could find hundreds of families waiting in a drive-through line to pick up diapers from the Austin Diaper Bank. The Diaper Bank would distribute more than 50,000 diapers to over 750 families in just half an hour. This isn’t how they normally operate—the increased need was driven by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But responding to the importance and impact of diapers wasn’t anything new to the Austin Diaper Bank.
One in three families experience “diaper need,” or the lack of a sufficient supply of diapers to keep an infant, toddler, or other individual clean, dry, and healthy. Diapers are expensive, and here in Texas, the amount of infants and toddlers living in poverty or low-income households is higher than the national average.
The Austin Diaper Bank, a recipient of St. David’s Foundation’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund, provides diapers to Central Texas families who need a clean, reliable supply of diapers for a healthy and comfortable quality of life. Started in 2013, the Diaper Bank has grown considerably. The organization serves six counties and tens of thousands of families.
But why diapers? Children require an average of 8-12 diapers a day, averaging around $100 a month or $1200 a year—and that’s just for one child. Families who have trouble affording diapers tend to run short 11-12 diapers each week. Currently, there is only one federal assistance program that exists that can be used to buy diapers, but it also covers basic needs such as rent, transportation, and utilities, leaving little money left for a family in need to spend on diapers (learn more here).
A lack of clean diapers affects a baby’s well-being, leading to an increased risk of infection and sickness for babies. But the connection of diapers to many other issues that impact the health and well-being of children and families goes much further. Diaper rash or discomfort also lead to excessive crying, which is the number one cause of child abuse. Further, most childcare facilities require parents to provide a week’s supply of diapers. No diapers leads to no childcare, and no childcare can lead to missing work or school. In fact, three in five parents report having to miss work or school for this very reason. This can lead to loss of livelihood, further exacerbating diaper need and presenting even more barriers to health.
Over the years, the Diaper Bank has developed an innovative distribution model that has enabled scaled impact and reach. Instead of handing out diapers themselves, the Diaper Bank partners with food pantries, nonprofit organizations, and social service providers that are already connected in the community. By distributing to these partners, families can access diapers right where they are.
“Our model works,” said Holly McDaniel, Executive Director of the Austin Diaper Bank. “Asking a family in poverty to come to us makes no sense. Instead, meet the clients where they are. I don’t want to add anything to their plate, I want this to be easy for them.”
So, why the drive-through diaper line? Many of the Austin Diaper Bank’s community partners are led by volunteers, including many people who at a higher risk for COVID-19. As wide-spread closures started throughout the region and the nation, many of these organizations had to halt any in-person work; while at the same time, factors such as job loss and retail shortages caused diaper need to increase.
Thankfully, as organizations adapted to the pandemic, the Diaper Bank was able to return to their effective distribution model—but not without implementing some key learning and long-term programming shifts.
“One of the things we’re really proud of, considering we’re a really small staff, is the appointments we started. We started doing direct service,” explained McDaniel. “As much as we loved the drive-through, we weren’t making the much needed connections with the families.”
To better understand and meet the needs of families struggling during the pandemic, the Austin Diaper Bank created an online form to set up appointments that occurred in their parking lot. During these 15-20 minute appointments, they got the opportunity to listen to families share their story. Many were newly thrust into poverty and needed help navigating the social services system, and the Diaper Bank was in a perfect position to connect them to countless agencies and organizations.
While diaper distribution has returned to Austin Diaper Bank’s partners, the small team is continuing to serve as a community hub for health and knowledge sharing. Diapers are a tangible, high-priority need for families, which gives the Diaper Bank the opportunity to serve as gatekeepers and way finders to countless assistance programs.
“Yes, we’re giving out diapers, but we’re also supporting families,” said McDaniel. “We can’t do that without looking at them at a holistic level. Everybody needs space to tell their story. Our mission is to support these families by talking to them and sharing knowledge.”
Filling the crucial need of diapers also frees up emotional and mental space for families and caretakers to focus on accessing these services or improving other areas of health.
“When you hand them that diaper, you see the weight lifted and the life come back to their eyes,” said McDaniel. “When you are so focused on the lack of need for a child, you can’t focus on applying for jobs or filling out forms.”
To ensure proper social distancing, the Austin Diaper Bank can only allow three volunteers to work in their warehouse at a time—doing the work of what normally takes 15-20 people. Despite the challenges from this year, they have continued to press on and increase their impact. As of September, the Diaper Bank had already served over 22,000 families in 2020, compared to an average of 15,000 families in years past.
As a relatively new organization in Austin, the Diaper Bank is continuing to build new relationships and increase brand awareness in Central Texas. Growing community needs in the face of the pandemic has given them an opportunity to educate far and wide on diaper need and the impact a diaper can have on a family. Additionally, The Austin Diaper Bank is a member of the National Diaper Bank Network and is an emerging leader in their field, serving as a model for diaper banks throughout the nation.
You can learn more about diaper need and ways to partner with the Austin Diaper Bank at their website: https://www.austindiapers.org/