As a broke graduate student with four children, Jessica Adams was barely squeaking by financially after her divorce. She was able to provide for her children – and stay in school – with the help of food stamps and utility assistance. But there was one expense that she couldn’t find help with.

Adams’ youngest child was in diapers, and families can’t use food stamps or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to buy diapers. Adams remembers going to the food pantry one day and asking if they had any diapers. She immediately felt embarrassed and ashamed when the woman told her that they never carried them.

“If a food pantry is there to help people,” Adams said, tearing up at the memory, “and if they didn’t have diapers, I felt like maybe good moms could figure out how to get diapers.”

Later in 2013, Adams had just finished her masters in social work when she heard a radio story about the National Diaper Bank. One statistic struck her: that one in three moms routinely don’t have the diapers they need to keep her kids clean and dry. Adams soon found that there was a diaper bank in every major city, but not in St. Louis. She decided to start an effort that prevented moms from feeling the same worry and embarrassment she felt, she said.

In the spring of 2014, Adams started the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank at her kitchen table, distributing a few thousand diapers. Now, the organization has 44 partners — including Parents As Teachers and several food pantries — that distribute two million diapers every year to about 40,000 children in the region.

And on April 1, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank will move into a new warehouse in Wellston, where it will act as manager for a “basic needs hub” for agencies serving to provide basic services to families. It was designed and orchestrated by the Community Impact Network.

“For me, the experience of looking into an empty pantry was distressing and painful, but I knew where we could get food,” Adams said. “Looking at an empty diaper basket feels completely different from that in so many ways. It’s so intimate to what your role is as a parent. When you can’t provide that, it feels awful and embarrassing.”

Studies show that this is a common feeling, she said, as mothers consistently tell researchers that diaper need is more distressing to them than food insecurity.

Adams’ organization has elevated this conversation in the region, said Emily Koenig, board president for the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, who also leads the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund.

“Although it might seem like a small thing, a diaper, or lack of a clean diaper, can lead to big problems for children and families,” Koenig said. “Through the work of the diaper bank, we are working to eliminate the stress of diaper need in order to support strong social, emotional and healthy relationships. And we’re having an impact.”

Local families are now reporting that they feel less stressed because they don’t have to choose between paying for diapers and paying for food, Koenig said. And that leads to healthier, happier children and parents. 

This is among the reasons that the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank is receiving the Health Advocacy Organization of the Year Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 19th annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 26.

“Over the past several years, it’s become so clear to us at the diaper bank that it is completely impossible to raise a healthy baby if you don’t have diapers,” Adams said. “And diapers impact almost every aspect of a family’s stability.”

Mothers who don’t have enough diapers are three times more likely to experience negative mental health issues like anxiety and depression, Adams said. It also interferes with the healthy development of a baby’s brain not to have clean diapers, she added.

“Toxic stress, we know, affects baby’s brains forever and changes families’ lives,” she said. “And we know that giving diapers to families helps a lot to relive some of that shame and that painful stress that comes with living in poverty.”

Tickets for the 19th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 26 at the Frontenac Hilton are $750 per table for VIP/Corporate seating and $50 each/$500 table for Individual seating. To order tickets, call 314-533-8000 or visit www.stlamerican.com.

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