A young woman showed up at St. Vincent de Paul’s Women’s Center in downtown Oakland a few months ago after leaving the husband who had been beating her. She had newborn twins, a child who hadn’t yet turned two, and nothing else—no clothes, no money and none of the items needed to take care of babies.
“I explained we could find her a safe place to stay and I gave her diapers for the next week,” says Sonia Muñoz, the assistant manager of the Women’s Center, a daytime drop-in center offering free programs and services for women and children. The young woman broke down crying. She fell to her knees and thanked Muñoz and everyone else at the center. “If you would’ve seen her, your eyes would’ve watered,” Muñoz says.
Diaper costs are something that many non-parents don’t think about. Individual diapers seem relatively inexpensive and are often considered part of the cost of childcare, but for homeless or low-income families finding $1,100 a year for diapers, which is the average yearly cost to diaper a baby, can be an overwhelming household expense. But it’s an essential expense: A baby left in a dirty diaper can get diaper rash, urinary tract infections and staph infections.
A child can go through six to eight diapers a day, on average, and a newborn can need as many as 10 to 12, says Lisa Truong, the co-founder of Help a Mother Out, a San Francisco based organization that works to get diapers for families in need. “If you don’t have diapers, you’re kind of stuck,” she says.
This week, Help a Mother Out received a donation of 100,000 diapers from the diaper brand Huggies, which it parceled out to three nonprofit organizations that work with low-income and homeless people: St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, and the Homeless Prenatal Program and Bayview Mission in San Francisco. Truong said the St. Vincent de Paul Women’s Center received 60,000 of those diapers.
The Women’s Center, on the corner of San Pablo and West Grand, is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown Community Center, which also provides meals, job training and health services. “What we discovered after opening the dining room was that people needed more than just a hot meal,” says Katharine Miller, the director of development and communications for St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County. “There was a whole neighborhood that needed help.”
Almost half of the single-mother households in this neighborhood live below the poverty line, many with an average income of around $5,000 a year. Food stamps and WIC, the federally funded health and nutrition program, do not cover diapers. Families tend to run out of disposable diapers at the end of the month when money is tight, while reusable cloth diapers are not an easy option for families that don’t have laundry, transportation, or the upfront money to buy them.
That’s why the Women’s Center first started giving disposable diapers to women in need. A distribution room at the back of the center stores all sorts of basic items—like diapers, feminine hygiene products, baby food, soap and children’s clothing. Twenty to 25 women come there every week to get diapers. “Several different mothers come through and they’re with their last diaper,” says Muñoz. “Or there’s domestic violence victims that come with just the clothes on their back and what’s in their diaper bag.”
A woman once called asking for diapers because she was down to using paper towels held on by a plastic bag as a diaper for her baby. “Everyday I see something that breaks my heart,” Muñoz says. “It feels so good to give someone what they need.”
When diaper distribution at the Women’s Center first started, each client would get eight diapers twice a month. Now they get 10 diapers twice a month. With the new donation from Help a Mother Out, the center hopes to increase the allotment to 12 diapers twice a month.
When Truong and her business partner Rachel Fudge founded Help a Mother Out in March 2009, they heard the same story over and over—that families were spending half the day taking the bus across town to organizations like St. Vincent de Paul for just two or three emergency diapers. “We found out that diapers were the highest needed item in homeless shelters,” Truong says. “We heard of babies going to sleep at night with a dirty diaper, which is really stressful for a caregiver.”
They decided to hold a Mother’s Day diaper drive. After collecting 15,000 diapers they realized this was something they couldn’t do just once. They now serve over 22 different social service organizations and have given out a total of 585,000 diapers. “This is something that really sparks with people,” says Miller, who worked with Truong organizing the donation for St. Vincent de Paul. “It’s those basics, the stuff we take for granted.”
Help a Mother Out continues to hold diaper drives and receive donations. They have two diaper drop bins in Oakland for individuals to donate just a few diapers, one at Sadiedey’s Café on 4210 Telegraph Avenue and the other at Play Café at 4400 Keller Avenue, Studio 410. Truong says she hopes to make this project as sustainable as possible and get other people and organizations to also host diaper drives.
St. Vincent de Paul’s Women’s Center is open daily but the diaper donation room is only open on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday—although they will make an exception for an emergency. Along with diapers, the Women’s Center also gives out adult hygiene bags and infant hygiene bags, which include shampoos, soaps, toothbrushes, baby lotions and more. They also try to focus on job training and referrals to help get women out of poverty and situations where they need to come in for emergency diapers.
“The stuff is the easy part,” Miller says. “We want to help them move forward in life. This is the reason why we do what we do.”