CHICAGO: McHenry parish banks diapers, helps moms in need

July 18, 2010

In just six months, the diaper bank at St. Paul's Church has given away more than 80,000 diapers in McHenry County, Illinois, in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.

Banking and distributing diapers wasn't something the rector, the Rev. Jim Swarthout, had considered as a future ministry, until a young mother asked for them while visiting the parish food bank.

"She had an infant daughter and the daughter had a diaper-full," he recalled. "She said 'Fr. Jim, I can only afford two diapers a day, so I clean it out and put it right back on her,'" he recalled.

Afterwards, Swarthout, who is also a social worker, did some research and discovered there were few, if any diaper banks nationally, and none in Illinois. He contacted local social service and nonprofit agencies. He talked with leadership of the parish, located about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, before launching the bank about six months ago.

"I saw it as a unique ministry ... we're the only faith-based diaper bank, and one of only three that give diapers to adults, too," he said. "About one-third of the diapers we give away go to adults."

Recently St. Paul's received a little help -- a donation of 200,000 diapers from the Kimberly-Clark Corp., after a national survey indicated that one in three moms struggling with diaper need has had to cut back on basics such as food, utilities, or even child care in order to provide diapers for their children.

The 2010 "Every Little Bottom" study was commissioned by Kimberly-Clark, the maker of 'Huggies' disposable diapers. It surveyed a representative sample of about 2,500 women with babies four years and younger in the United States and Canada.

Among other findings, it indicated that one-third of mothers struggling with diaper need run out of clean diapers every month. Many of these mothers also reported missing work because of lack of diapers, as most child-care facilities require a day's worth of diapers.

"This issue of diaper need -- mothers struggling to provide diapers for their babies -- is serious and has been largely unrecognized until now," said Dr. Cybele Raver, a New York University professor and lead researcher for the study, in a statement posted on the website.

The average baby uses 10 to 12 diapers daily, amounting to about 2,800 diapers a year in the first year of life, at a cost of about $558, according to the website

Mike Bell, a banker and St. Paul's parishioner, said he's learned a lot about disposable diapers since he began serving as director of the diaper bank.

"I remember the days of diaper pins with my own kids -- I got stuck lots. I'm glad cloth diapers went away," he said.

When parents lack diapers, it creates "an emotional trauma with both mother and baby," he said. "If the baby is sitting in dirty diapers, the baby is crying. If the mother can't afford to buy them, there's also an emotional impact because they can't provide. We thought we could make a difference ... [and] to make sure kids have their needs taken care of."

Many child-care agencies require parents to bring six disposable diapers daily. Diapers are not covered by most community-based organizations or food assistance programs like food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) which provide parents in need assistance only for food, infant formula and nutrition, Swarthout said.

Nine other agencies throughout the country also received diaper donations, which totaled 2 million, according to a Kimberly-Clark spokesperson. The company has pledged to donate up to 20 million diapers in the United States and 2.5 million in Canada over the next eight months.

St. Paul's also receives donations from other churches and organizations, while high schools and hospitals have held diaper drives to replenish their supply, Swarthout said. Diapers are stored "in a vault" -- space donated by a local businessman. Ten local social service and senior citizen agencies, each with their own criteria for distribution, submit monthly order requests, which are filled by parish volunteers.

"The order has to be here by Friday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, people from the parish come and take those request sheets we've developed and withdraw them from the vault," Swarthout said. The diapers are packed up and readied for a Wednesday morning pickup.

Jackie Piggott is founder of Blessing Barn, one of the diaper bank's partner agencies.

"I've always wanted to do diapers, and oh my gosh, yes, there's a huge need," Piggott said in a telephone interview from her office. But without St. Paul's diaper bank she wouldn't be able to distribute them, she said.

"I couldn't do it if I had to go out and spend the time and do the marketing and engage with the people to get the diapers in here, I just do not have the time," said Piggott, whose nonprofit agency stocks donated clothing, household furniture and other items in three barns and a garage for those in need.

"I was on the phone just this morning with a woman who was losing her house, so it was a tearful conversation," she said. "She came to me to get diapers before she got her little boy potty-trained. It took everything they had to try and keep a roof over their head.

Swarthout said the diaper bank is an extension of outreach ministry at the parish, which has "about 55 families in an elderly community [and] ... has brought new faces to the community and a sense of curiosity, like what are those people doing?

"We've been here many years and now people say, 'I didn't know there was an Episcopal Church in McHenry. This ministry has engaged the larger community. Diapers break every boundary possible. This unifies people. We all know children, we all know adults and if you have needs, if you need diapers, all we want to know is how can we help you?"

"I had a woman come to the parish one day looking for me and out of the blue gave me a big hug," recalled Swarthout, who hopes to help others establish similar ministries throughout the country. "She said 'I can stay in my apartment this month because of the diapers you gave me.'"

The ministry has earned him a reputation, too. "Now I walk around town and people say 'that's the guy who's the diaper priest.'"