Distributing free diapers: The effort to keep babies clean and healthy

  • Benjamin Huntoon, above, plays with his brother Trey Bowman. Their mother says she is grateful for the support she gets from the Amherst Survival Center. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDREW WHITAKER

  • "You can spend up to $30 for diapers a week, it's only a little amount, but it adds up." Tashina Bowman said as she holds her six-month-old son Benjamin Huntoon in her living room Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Amherst. Tanisha has been getting her diapers through the Amherst Survival Center's free diaper program. —Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • Tashina Bowman, left, and her son Trey Bowman, 9, look at Tashina's six-month-old son and Trey's brother, Benjamin Huntoon, at their home Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Amherst. —Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • "I am a single mother of seven boys" Tashina Bowman said as she was talking about the cost of diapers while she holds her six-month-old son Benjamin Huntoon at her home Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Amherst. Tanisha has been getting her diapers through the Amherst Survival Center's free diaper program and said the cost of diapers adds up and every amount helps. —Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • Tashina Bowman says she would prefer to use cloth diapers for Benjamin, just as she did for her older sons, but her washing machine broke and she can’t afford a new one. Gazette StafF/ANDREW WHITAKERf

  • "You can spend up to $30 for diapers a week, it's only a little amount, but it adds up," say Tashina Bowman of Amherst, shown above with her six-month-old son Benjamin Huntoon. Bowman has been getting diapers through the Amherst Survival Center's free diaper program. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDREW WHITAKERf

  • Diapers are seen in boxes at the Amherst Survival Center. —Andrew Whitaker/Gazette Staff

  • The Amherst Survival Center hands out a five-day supply of diapers with the groceries families in need get from the food pantry there. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker

  • INNA_VOLODINA—Getty Images/iStockphoto

  • "You can spend up to $30 for diapers a week, it's only a little amount, but it adds up." Tashina Bowman's six-month-old son Benjamin Huntoon plays on the floor in her living room Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Amherst. —Andrew J. Whitaker/Gazette Staff

  • iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 7/25/2016 1:59:11 PM

A mother of two, Nicole Woodward of Ware hasn’t yet had to choose between her baby's diapers and food when in the grocery store, but there have been tight moments.

“Money comes and it goes as fast as it comes,” said Woodward, 28, a stay-at-home mother.

Her husband, Jeremiah, often comes home to their apartment dripping with sweat after 12-hour shifts at his job as a machine operator at the cable manufacturer Quabbin Wire & Cable, she said. While he works long hours, it is still hard sometimes to make ends meet.

So absorbing the cost of the disposable diapers — five to 10 a day — that 1-year old Joey needs is a strain for the family that includes 7-year-old Ethan, and their pit bull mix, Bowzer. At that rate, the expense of diapers can run between $30 to $90 monthly, depending on the size, brand and the amount used per day.

But once a month Woodward makes a trip to the Amherst Survival Center on Sunderland Road in Amherst to receive a free five-day supply — 25 diapers — to ease the burden. The nonprofit center is at the core of a local movement to help ensure that low-income families get the diapers they need, distributing about 10,700 diapers each month.

“It helps in a pinch, especially if you are trying to cover the bills,” she said. “Every little bit helps. It really does.” 

The Amherst Survival Center, which offers free meals, distributes groceries and runs a free store of clothing and household items, held its first diaper drive for donations last year. The campaign brought in 34,000 diapers and donations keep coming in to the center which serves families from 13 towns across Hampshire and Franklin Counties. The effort has recently been aided by a $10,000 state grant that State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst helped secure.

In the meantime, The United Way of Hampshire County has gotten involved, too, collecting 40,000 diapers last year to distribute to families through various local nonprofits. Another United Way drive is underway now with the aim of collecting 50,000 diapers.

“People are often surprised that both food stamps and WIC do not help with diapers,” said James Ayres, United Way executive director.

Widespread struggle

One out of every three households struggle with diaper costs, according to Mindy Domb, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center.

“This is not only a health issue, it’s an economic issue,” she said.

Some families are forced to choose between buying diapers or paying rent, buying food or affording their electric bills, she said.

Skimping on diapers may lead to families changing their babies less frequently than necessary, increasing the risk for severe diaper rash, staph or urinary tract infections, said Julie Federman, a registered nurse and the Health and Community Services Director in Amherst.

Dr. John O’Reilly, a pediatrician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, notes that, too. He regularly sees babies with diaper rash.

“The skin is the largest organ of your baby because it really is, not just covering you, but protecting you,” he said. “With diapers, in a way, there is a perfect storm because the diaper holds in moisture, it holds in heat, it rubs against the skin.”

The mixture of urine and feces will change the pH of the skin, he said, breaking it down and leaving it more prone to infection. Once the skin is red and damaged, it is no longer an effective barrier to germs.

But dirty diapers aren’t just a dermatological problem, said Domb, they also have social implications for families. In some cases, the situation may keep parents from going to work or school since many day care providers require babies to be dropped off with a supply of diapers, she said.

“These folks are struggling,” said O’Reilly, “and we are trying to figure out a way to help these families.” He is working with a team of other doctors to set up a diaper bank in Springfield for low-income families.

Making do

In between trips to food pantries in Amherst and Ware, where diapers are also distributed, Woodward buys store-brand diapers from Walmart for about $15 to $20 for a package of 58 diapers, avoiding the expensive brand names.

When she is short on cash and diapers are running low, she calls her mother for help. “That’s what family is for,” she said.

Another Amherst Survival Center patron, Tashina Bowman, 39, is a single mother living with five of her seven sons in a rental house in Amherst. Without diapers from the Survival Center, she said, she would be cutting into her budget for gas and other bills.

Bowman’s 6-month-old, Benjamin, goes through about five diapers each day, she said.

"You can spend up to $30 for diapers a week, it's only a little amount, but it adds up.”

She visits the Survival Center’s food pantry every other week and also relies on food stamps to feed her family. “I think that it’s ridiculous that food stamps don’t cover diapers,” she said.

She prefers cloth diapers, a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option that she used with her six older sons, who range in age from 6 to 20. But when her washing machine broke, she said, she couldn’t afford a new one. She was forced to turn to disposables.

While the Survival Center helps her stay afloat, Bowman, who has lived in town for about 30 years, says she is now in danger of being forced out of Amherst, because of high rents. The house she is leasing is being sold and she is having trouble finding another home in town that her federal Section 8 rental assistance will cover. Last week, she received an eviction notice, so diapers right now are the least of her concerns.

Still, having to move to a community with lower housing costs, such as Holyoke, she said, would cut her off from the Amherst Survival Center’s services, assistance she has come to count on.

“We are lucky at the Amherst Survival Center because they get donations from Whole Foods, so we can get good quality meat that I don’t feel bad about giving to my kids,” Bowman said. “I definitely appreciate the Amherst Survival Center. There is definitely a privilege that I have being up here.”

Bowman’s financial struggles are not uncommon in Amherst, Federman said.

“We have a lot of people living on very, very tight incomes in Amherst and one thing that people might try to cut back on is diapers,” she said. About 47 percent of the children in town are on free or reduced lunches in the Amherst public schools, so families appreciate the extra boost of free diapers, she said.

Gaining steam

On the national level, diaper need is also starting to gain attention. Last month, U.S. Senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Bob Casey from Pennsylvania introduced the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act. The proposed legislation would make federal grant funds available for states to create and administer programs to provide diapers to low-income families.

“No family in our country should go to the store and be forced to choose between buying diapers or groceries,” said Franken in a statement on his website “But unfortunately, about one in three American families face financial barriers to accessing diapers for their kids. We can't ignore this crisis.”

For now, local programs like Amherst’s are filling a gap and Domb, for one, has been grateful for the public support.

“Over the past year, our community has demonstrated its growing awareness of diaper need and its commitment to low-income families who struggle with it,” she said.

For a full list of donation drop off sites and locations to receive free diapers in the area visit https://uwhampshire.org/uwhc-diaper-drive.

The Amherst Survival Center food pantry is at 138 Sunderland Road, North Amherst. For more information about the center and to learn how to register for the food pantry, visit https://amherstsurvival.org/food-pantry/.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

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