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The brand-new baby is a bundle of joy who can create a bundle of worries for those whose finances are already strained. And though Evanston families in need have had help in providing some fundamentals such as formula and clothing, they have had nowhere to turn for another necessity.
Now First United Methodist Church has opened the first diaper pantry between Chicago and Waukegan, Bundled Blessings, to address a problem so severe it has been called a “silent crisis,” says Krys Juleen, program co-chair.
As mundane as tissues and toilet paper, diapers play a central role in the life of an infant. They are “a basic need for children, as essential to their health and well-being as food and shelter,” Ms. Juleen says.
Yet parents who cannot afford to spend up to $150 a month for baby or toddler diapers have to make difficult choices. Many low-income families have to choose between buying food or diapers. In a September 2013 survey by Feeding America, 48 percent of these families reported delaying diaper changes, and 32 percent told of reusing diapers.
The health ramifications of such behaviors – including rashes or staph infections – result in parental “shame and guilt,” says Jan Winslow, a perinatal social worker at Evanston Hospital and co-chair of Bundled Blessings. Then there is the pressure a “cranky baby adds to an already stressed situation,” she says – and the toll it all takes on both caregiver and infant. “Maternal health and self-esteem affects babies,” Ms. Winslow says.
Federal programs such as LINK (formerly called Food Stamps) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) do not cover the purchase of paper goods like disposable diapers. And for many people, cloth diapers are not a feasible alternative. Not only do many low-income families lack ready access to washing machines to launder them, but an Illinois state law prohibits washing cloth diapers in laundromats, Ms. Juleen says. The lack of diapers can even jeopardize employment, because most daycare facilities require families to furnish their own diapers.
Plenty of people in Evanston live at or below the poverty level – 17.3 percent in 2010, according to Bundled Blessings, which also reports that some 43 percent of the 3,500 births at Evanston Hospital in 2012 were to teens or low-income women.
The idea of a diaper pantry as a local mission project of First Methodist came from Mary Rawlinson, a Garrett Evangelical Seminary student interning last year at the church. In November Ms. Winslow, who with Ms. Juleen was a member of the site committee overseeing Ms. Rawlinson’s intern year, did a little research into issues surrounding the need for diapers. “The results were staggering,” she said.
By February a five-member committee (the two co-chairs and Sue Hagedorn, Beth Lindley and Diane Pieterse) was working on plans for the diaper pantry they had named Bundled Blessings. A voice of experience, Ms. Winslow and Ms. Juleen say, came to them in the person of Brenna Woodley. This Chicago woman started the diaper bank Bundle of Joy In her garage in 2010. Three years later it has grown into an all-volunteer organization that distributes 60,000 diapers a month to 14 agencies in the city and suburbs. Along with her expertise, Ms. Woodley gave Bundled Blessings 1,000 “seed diapers,” says Ms. Juleen.
Early on, the church committee decided to partner with other agencies already equipped to assess and identify families in need. At present Bundled Blessings is working with Infant Welfare Society of Evanston, which oversees the Teen/Baby Nursery at Family Focus, and with Connections for the Homeless, which provides temporary housing for families through the Family Residential Program.
All diapers will be distributed through these partners rather than at the church. The pantry’s first-year goal is to provide 100 families with 50 diapers a month. Research indicates that 50 is the diaper shortfall the average low-income family faces when providing for their children. “We’re trying to give them some breathing room,” Ms. Juleen says.
Bundled Blessings plans to sponsor diaper collections both at First Methodist and around the community and to store the diapers at the church. They held their first diaper drive at the church on Sept. 8, when the children of the congregation walked up the aisle with bundles that added up to 4,000 diapers. The pantry has begun placing big red barrels with their logo at host retail establishments (Kazoom in Dempster-Dodge Plaza is the first to host a barrel) and other convenient drop-off spots.
The pantry welcomes not only unopened packages of diapers of all sizes but also loose diapers, which they will repackage. Monetary donations can be made online at www.faithatfirst.com (under the outreach tab) and will allow the pantry to buy diapers in needed sizes and most economically, in bulk. The Bundled Blessings committee has a number of suggestions for gifting – donations at a baby shower or birthday party or in someone’s name for the holidays.
Bundled Blessings is in touch with the wider diaper bank movement, too, having joined the National Diaper Bank Network. Ms. Juleen attended the Second Annual Diaper Banks in America Conference in San Antonio last weekend.
Ms. Winslow admits that getting the pantry off the ground has been like “starting a small business. I wasn’t prepared.” But with partnership agreements now complete and order and inventory forms printed, Bundled Blessings is set to deliver on a a softer, drier, cleaner future for a lot of babies in and around Evanston. There will be many more to come, as this is “not a one-time project,” Ms. Juleen says. “We’re in it for the long haul.”