For many families with infants, diapers are a standard grocery store purchase.
But for homeless and low-income families with infants, diapers are a critical need that they can’t afford, and HomeFront has known this for a long time. Its chief operating officer, Sarah Steward, says that 27 years ago, when HomeFront got its start delivering food to homeless families living in motels on Route 1 and elsewhere, “the next thing families would ask for were diapers.”
So HomeFront came up with a solution: a diaper bank for families in need.
“For families living on very low incomes, it can be $70 to $80 a month for diapers,” she says, and a single woman may get only about $450 per month. Furthermore, no state or federal aid programs will help with the cost of diapers, including food stamps. “So precious little cash is spent on diapers, and we were seeing cases of very bad diaper rash because parents were diapering less often—often on a schedule and not based on need,” Steward says.
Diapers are more expensive in the long run if you can’t afford to buy them in bulk. Steward says she has heard of bodegas that charge a dollar for a single diaper, and low-income families don’t have the cash or ability to purchase large quantities. “You need to have $50 to buy a jumbo case,” she says.
“This can be a significant source of stress,” she continues. When parents are forced to diaper their children less often, a child’s health may be affected, but also the mother’s psyche. “Until I experienced it first hand, what I didn’t understand was how it affects the mothers—the stress and the feelings of inadequacy,” Steward says. “Your baby is unhappy and has a rash and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Although HomeFront has been informally helping families out with diapers for many years, it took the juncture of Steward’s visit to a National Diaper Bank Network conference and the gigantic garage on the property of the HomeFront Family Campus to inspire a Diaper Resource Center.
The garage was a leftover from when the property belonged to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines. “It was formerly a gigantic garage where they used to keep the Howitzers—the big guns, the ones on wheels,” Steward says.
“Knowing that this need exists and having this facility where we can warehouse, organize, and package diapers for our families—the idea and the space came together—the stars aligned in that way,” Steward says.
“The wonderful part of all this is they had a facility that could handle it—it had been just sitting there,” says HomeFront board member Patrice Coleman-Boatwright. “It was easy to then visualize what it could be, and they set about putting the word out, and it just caught fire.”
Put simply, providing diapers becomes another way that HomeFront helps families become self-sufficient.
Through conversations with other providers, Homefront learned the ropes of how to set up a meaningful program. They figured out how many diapers and wipes they needed on hand to open the bank and how best to hand out the diapers to people who need them. Then, as is HomeFront’s wont, they reached out to the community for help.
Diversified Rack and Shelving in East Windsor, which had previously helped with HomeFront’s food pantry, stepped up with all the shelving for the warehouse, free of charge. Other donors provided startup funding to cover infrastructure costs like trucks and necessary staff.
Once the warehouse was ready to go, they needed to fill it. So, starting on Mother’s Day of this year, they launched the Homefront Diaper Challenge, with the goal of accumulating 100,000 diapers. “We wanted to not only fill the shelves but make it sustainable for a few months,” Steward says.
HomeFront got busy reaching out to the community, corporations, congregations, Girl Scout troops, Kiwanis clubs, and others via emails and social media posts.
To make the diaper collections easier, HomeFront set up an Amazon wish list. “With a couple of clicks they could send the diapers right to us,” Steward says. Although most of the contributions have been local, Steward says, “our warehouse dock is receiving shipments from Amazon from all over the country.” That included her college roommate, who lives in central Pennsylvania, and had seen a posting on Steward’s Facebook page.
New Jersey Manufacturers collected a few thousand diapers and wipes from employees in their Ewing, Parsippany and Hammonton locations. HomeFront board member Patricia Hartpence, who works in NJM’s corporate giving department, got the ball rolling in her company. People were interested and wrote a proposal that was quickly approved. They posted information and “there was great interest right away,” she says, adding that the general claims department set up its own departmental collection site.
Hartpence traced the excitement about the diaper collection to its uniqueness, and she anticipates they will do again.
At Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church, the diaper collection project connected perfectly with its custom of having congregants bring donations for a different cause each month, from pajamas for hospitalized children to nonperishable breakfast foods for Arm and Arm. To collect the diapers and wipes, they set up a table decorated to look like a baby shower.
The small branding company where Coleman-Boatwright works, Cooper Creative Group, collected diapers and wipes themselves but also used social media to get the word out. But, she says, “by the time we did, people were saying, we already heard about it.”
The diaper project has been hugely successful thus far, yielding about 175,000 individual diapers and wipes, which may earn HomeFront a Guinness World Record. Steward says, “The community, as they always have, has responded incredibly generously and helped us fill the shelves and get this started.”
“Now we have a stockpile that we hope to build on and keep it going,” Coleman-Boatwright says.
As HomeFront has done with its food pantry, where groups will donate food or run a drive, it will be looking to groups, individuals, and congregations to supply its ongoing need for diapers and wipes.
HomeFront has already started to get the word out to families who need diapers. Diaper clients will include some of the 450 people housed by HomeFront in different places, as well as referrals from agencies in the community who serve low-income families with children as well as childcare agencies and healthcare clinics.
The collection at her church got Fran Gates, head of the church’s outreach committee, thinking about potential diaper recipients, in particular the students who attend English and Spanish school classes meeting at her church several days a week, Gates says, “We have access to let a lot of families know to take advantage of it; we could do a better job of informing the community that comes to us.”
Although the diapers are collected at the site of the HomeFront Family Center, they are distributed at their main office, 1880 Princeton Ave. in Lawrence.
Hartpence got involved in HomeFront nine years ago after touring the HomeFront Family Preservation when it was across the street from NJM’s West Trenton office, at the Katzenbach School. Connie Mercer then invited her to join the board, which Hartpence says “has been a very inspiring experience.” NJM, she says, supports HomeFront throughout the year.
Coleman-Boatwright also sits on the Ewing Township Redevelopment Agency and on the vestry of her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal. She came to Ewing originally to work for the College of New Jersey, starting as a program coordinator with all the student organizations and finally retiring in 2011 as associate vice president for community relations and special events. She is especially proud of her involvement with Campus Town, a mixed use residential and retail space on the edge of the campus.
HomeFront acquired the property for its Family Campus almost three years ago, with the vision of making it a one-stop social services campus. Today it is an emergency shelter for 31 families, who are provide with job training, career coaching, a volunteer health clinic, education in managing chronic illness and parenting skills as well as life skills like budgeting and healthy cooking. HomeFront also provides licensed childcare, without which none of the other programs would work, she adds. The goal, Steward says, is that “families have the tools to be self-sufficient when they move on.”
“We’re hoping to help families make their budgets stretch a little farther,” Steward continues. “Every dollar we free up goes to food, childcare, and rent.” She has also learned that diapers are a key link to employment. “To participate in a daycare program, most children have to come with a supply of disposable diapers. If you can’t provide them, your child can’t attend daycare,” Steward says. Put simply, providing diapers becomes another way that HomeFront helps families become self-sufficient.