At Mindr, we believe every parent is a changemaker. And #MINDRMAMA Audrey Symes is an inspiring example. A real estate economist turned stay-at-home mom, Audrey found out that when families can't afford diapers, this unleashes all sorts of problems - from diaper rash through to flow-on impacts on childcare and the parents' work. So she decided to do something about it, one spare diaper at a time. Here, she shares her story of becoming an accidental advocate from her local playgroup all the way to the Hill.
In June 2016, just after my daughter’s second birthday, I entered a new era.
After two years of adjustment to motherhood, having conquered the feed/change/repeat routine, I finally felt like I had the time and mental bandwidth to do more. I was working from home on a project basis in my field of investment research, but I wanted to find another way to engage the intellectual and creative skills that had been somewhat mothballed during my daughter's infancy.
My mother was a dedicated community volunteer during my childhood, and I have always gotten great joy and satisfaction out of volunteer work. However, finding something that fit my schedule was tricky. Most volunteer events are held at night and on the weekends, and I was looking for something I could do either with my daughter as part of our day together or at home during her naps. I contacted the GOOD+ Foundation in New York City and asked if there was any need I could fill, thinking maybe I could help them with paperwork or spreadsheets from home, but the answer came back loud and clear: DIAPERS.
For the first time, I learned about the staggering problem of diaper need in the United States. The National Diaper Bank Network, working with Yale School of Medicine and Huggies, has confirmed in multiple studies that one in three American families lacks enough diapers to keep their babies clean and healthy. Diapers are expensive, roughly $80/month, and there is no federal, state, or city aid for their purchase.
In the immediate term, as you can imagine, diaper need leads to rashes, infections, and sometimes lasting urological problems for the babies. This is bad enough, but diaper need can also create a wide range of lasting problems for the entire family. Families have to provide diapers for their children to attend daycare or early childhood education, so a lack of diapers means that children can’t attend these programs - and parents can’t work, reducing the family’s resources. Diaper need has also been identified as a primary trigger for maternal depression among low-income mothers. In fact, it is even more highly correlated to maternal mental health disorders than food insecurity - and maternal depression can in turn cast a long shadow over the entire family’s physical and mental well-being. Diaper banks across the country heroically meet this need by distributing donated diapers to families through social service agencies. Donations from individuals are the fuel that keeps these banks going.
In the immediate term, diaper need leads to rashes, infections, and sometimes lasting urological problems for the babies. This is bad enough, but diaper need can also create a wide range of lasting problems for the entire family.
This issue really hit home for me, not only because I knew how essential a clean diaper is to a happy, healthy child (and mom!), but also because I knew from my diaper-changing career that people often end up with leftovers - from sizing up, trying a brand that didn’t work, toilet training, even accidentally buying the wrong size. I just knew that there was no reason that leftover diapers sitting in people’s apartments couldn’t be put to good use with a little legwork. Posting to my Facebook moms group, I announced a month-long diaper drive, offering to come pick up diapers of any size and amount from donors’ buildings. I hoped to collect 500 diapers.
Within a few days, I was getting round-the-clock messages from moms eager to give back. Like me, they could see how easy and efficient it was to give back through donating diapers. My daughter and I started stopping by their buildings on the way to the park and the grocery store, festooning her stroller with bags of diapers of all sizes, brands and types. Within days I had hit 1,000, touched by the overwhelming generosity of moms across the city eager to give back. I knew I had identified something great, and was encouraged to keep going. I asked at my church; I asked at my daughter’s preschool; I talked about it to anyone and everyone. My husband did too, and soon diapers started appearing at his office as his co-workers were inspired to join in.
All in all, I have had the privilege of helping to collect close to 25,000 diapers for families in need across both New York City and my home state of Connecticut. My grassroots work has inspired me to get involved on the policy level. I have lobbied my local, state and federal representatives to recognize and reduce diaper need in New York and beyond, helping to gather bipartisan support to recognize a National Diaper Need Awareness Week. This project has taken on wings beyond what I ever could have imagined with that first Facebook post, and I can’t wait to see what its future brings.
All in all, I have had the privilege of helping to collect close to 25,000 diapers for families in need. My grassroots work has inspired me to get involved on the policy level.
And I have received so very much more than I have given. My diaper advocacy work is an extension of what it means to me to be a mother. My daughter, now turning four, is an expert at fitting diapers into the nooks and crannies of the stroller and bundling them for collection. She likes to talk about how diapers help our neighbors. I hope she can look back and be proud - of her own role, of mine, and of the fact that we did it together.
Want to help? Audrey will be speaking for Mindr in August about her advocacy work and how each of us is empowered to become a changemaker, and you can donate your leftover diapers to her cause at the event. Sign up to our newsletter and join us on Instagram and Facebook to stay in the know.
Cover photo by Elizabeth Pfaff, made available by Creative Commons license via Flickr. Subsequent photos courtesy of Audrey Symes.