Mind the Gap

Repression was the Duvalier family business in Haiti. The many crimes of these dictators against their own people are well documented. But the story most often repeated is how “Mama Simone” Duvalier had air-conditioning installed in the National Palace so that she could comfortably wear her fur coats, in a tropical nation where poverty increased as wealth was concentrated in the ruling family’s inner circle.

We read that and think: How obscene! No wonder they had a revolution.

Unfortunately, income inequality is a problem in the United States, too. Global Post has a nifty function where you can see how the gap between rich and poor in your area compares with the situation in other nations. President Barack Obama’s home city of Chicago has a similar income gap to Rwanda.

Maybe that was on his mind when he said in his inaugural address: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”

There’s nothing wrong with being rich. I’d be fine with the rich getting richer if the poor weren’t simultaneously getting poorer. As I’ve previously written, the rate of extreme poverty in the United States has doubled since 1996. By extreme poverty, I mean a person living on about $2 a day. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service tells us that the top one percent of households hold about a third of the nation’s wealth.

I am neither a politician nor an economist. I offer no macro solution to this problem. But I can offer some micro ones. Extreme poverty in itself creates barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. People need help over those barriers, many of which seem like small things to those of us who are more fortunate. “Handouts” have a negative connotation. We hear that they are a “Band-Aid” solution. When you are bleeding, a Band-Aid is a wonderful thing. In addressing extreme poverty, we must first stop the bleeding.

There’s a mom and baby in South Florida who were homeless. The mother worked with an agency that got them shelter and also offered her a training program to become a certified nursing assistant. She still could not afford the diapers her childcare center required. But thanks to the Junior League of Boca Raton’s Diaper Bank, she has an ongoing supply of diapers and is able to work. My friends at The Diaper Bank in North Haven, Connecticut, provided a wounded Army veteran with diapers for his son. That enabled the man to go back to school for job training.

As a social worker who spent much of her career working with families in extreme poverty, I know what a big deal the little things can be. Imagine sending your kids to school in dirty clothes because you can’t afford detergent. How well would you do in a job interview if you had to show up in an old tattered suit? How far could you stretch your food stamps if you had to shop at a corner store because you had no way to get to a supermarket?

The United States is often called “The Land of Opportunity.” It will take some work for us to deserve that title again. We need to tackle some big issues. In the meantime, though, you might find some small issues to tackle in your own community to make sure that your most vulnerable neighbors really do have an opportunity to thrive.

 

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on January 29, 2013.

Advertisements

Small Victories

I spend a lot of time in this blog railing against our country’s failure to do right by its children. I was going to lighten up for the holidays and simply write a list of small acts of kindness that anyone can do. After all, what benefits our children more than a caring community?

Of course, everything changed with the Sandy Hook shootings. It seemed ridiculously trivial now to write about offering your mail carrier a hot drink or putting a quarter in a parking meter for a stranger.

Nothing anyone can say or do is enough. The undertow of grief and confusion is particularly strong where I live, in Connecticut, where 20 children and seven adults lost their lives in a fury of violence that we struggle to understand, even as we know it is beyond understanding.

There is so much work to be done: sane gun laws that will protect our children from instruments of war and the construction of something we have never had — an adequate mental health system.

As I wrestled with these dark thoughts, it occurred to me that now might be exactly the right time to suggest some small acts of kindness. Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That’s exactly what we should do, keep going in the direction of kindness, of caring for each other — especially those who cannot care for themselves. It’s important to reach for some achievable small victories. These are not substitutes for the big battles we need to fight, but they may give us some extra strength to keep going.

So, here are some humble suggestions. I hope you’ll share your own ideas, too.

  1. Don’t avert your eyes from a homeless person. Even if you don’t want to give money, you can say hello. That’s what human beings do when they encounter each other.
  2. Hold the door for a mom with a stroller, an elderly person, or just anyone.
  3. Throw a shower for a mom-to-be who’s having trouble making ends meet. You might find such a person through your faith community. Or you can throw a shower to benefit a diaper bank.
  4. Approach your least favorite co-worker and ask how the family is doing. It will take you three minutes and might warm up the office considerably.
  5. Save small things, like hotel shampoos and sample toothpaste from your dentist, then donate them to a school or food bank. No government programs cover hygiene needs and people suffer terribly as a result.
  6. When you’re shoveling your own driveway think about the family around the corner with the sick kid or the man down the street with the bad back. Shovel them out as well. It’s good for your heart in a couple of ways.
  7. Buy socks. Wearing wet, dirty socks is a frequent cause of dangerous foot infections for homeless people. Pick up a package of tube socks. I keep some in my trunk. Your local homeless shelter would be delighted with a donation, too.
  8. Read to a child. Yours or someone else’s. Many schools — particularly understaffed urban ones — love to have volunteers come in and read.
  9. Buy doubles on school supplies. Your child’s teacher likely knows a kid whose family is struggling.
  10. Give up the daily latte or the afternoon candy bar. Take one week’s savings from something you’re better off without anyway and write a check to a worthwhile cause.
  11. Say thank you to the people who get ignored — the barista, the toll collector, the woman who empties the waste cans in your office.
  12. Give a tissue. Teachers frequently have to buy their own for the class. It’s tough during cold season. Show up with a case of tissues from the warehouse club and be a hero.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on December 12, 2012

National Diaper Need Awareness Week

This year, the National Diaper Bank Network is recognizing the week of September 10-17 as National Diaper Need Awareness Week, and local diaper banks across the country have asked their state and local officials to do the same. But more than merely declaring a week, we are acknowledging that the country is becoming more and more aware of the fact that diapers are a basic need for infants, toddlers, and those who suffer from incontinence, and that more people are willing to do something about it.

We have come very far in bringing attention to diaper need in the eight years since I began this journey in 2004. When I started The Diaper Bank in New Haven, CT there were very few diaper banks in America, so I looked to the example of the Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona, the nation’s first diaper bank. That program began in 1994 when a small consulting firm in Tucson, Arizona held a diaper drive during the holiday season to assist a local crisis nursery. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response, and seeing the great need in their community, the firm made the December Diaper Drive an annual tradition, and within five years they were collecting 300,000 diapers each December, benefiting families at 30 local social service agencies. In 2000, the diaper drive effort was spun off into an independent non-profit organization, the Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona, which continues to provide desperately needed diapers to the people of southern Arizona.

The Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona served as my inspiration in 2004 when I decided to start a diaper bank. Through my work with families in need New Haven, I learned that many of the hygiene products I took for granted, such as toilet paper, toothpaste, and diapers, were not available to people who had only food stamps to buy their groceries. The need for diapers, which are so critical for a baby’s health and comfort, was particularly acute. I started small, working out of my living room, but in a few years time, with the help of many others, what started as The New Haven Diaper Bank (now, The Diaper Bank) has grown into the nation’s largest diaper bank, distributing over 14 million diapers since its inception.

The success of these diaper banks and others inspired similar efforts throughout the country. As awareness of the problem of diaper need grew, small but passionate groups of people responded by founding diaper banks in their communities as independent organizations, through their churches, and as part of the work of existing relief agencies. There are now over 150 diaper banks in America. Many of these organizations are quite small, but the difference they make is unmistakable. Still, however, the need for diapers far outstrips their ability to satisfy it.

There are 5.7 million babies and toddlers living in low-income families who may struggle to provide diapers for their children. These children are at greater risk for severe diaper rash, dermatitis, and other health problems. For their families, a baby crying because of a wet diaper that cannot be changed adds to the stress on parents struggling to make ends meet.

The purpose of Diaper Need Awareness Week is to recognize that there are people in the United States who struggle to provide clean, dry diapers for their children, and to celebrate the fact that there are organizations like diaper banks that can help people obtain the diapers they need.

It is also to recognize the tremendous strides already made in raising awareness of the need. I recently checked the number of mentions of “diaper banks” on webpages using Google, and the amount of web activity for diaper banks by year has increased dramatically. In 2004, when I first started my diaper bank, there were only 94 mentions of “diaper bank” on webpages for the whole year. In the first eight months of this year alone, that number has increased nearly two orders of magnitude to 7800. I expect that by the end of Diaper Need Awareness Week, that number will increase even more.

Across the country, there will be diaper-need focused events that week, including local area diaper drives, discussion panels on why diapers matter, fundraising events, op-eds in their local newspapers, and proclamations by governors and mayors declaring the week “Diaper Need Awareness Week.”

We at NDBN are starting the week with a bang, holding our first ever Diaper Bank Conference in Washington, DC, where forty diaper bank leaders will gather to learn more about how to make their efforts go farther. We hope by holding the conference in Washington, that we can demonstrate that grassroots charitable action can effect change in our country, and address a need experienced in places as diverse as Chattanooga, Tennessee and Santa Monica, California, and Lewisville, North Carolina and Seattle, Washington.

Why should this matter to you? Because this group of people are working together to change their communities, their states and their country by coming together to support people in need. The more activities there are around Diaper Need Awareness Week the more people will learn about the significance of this issue.

Please consider holding a diaper drive, hosting an event, donating to you local diaper bank or donating to the National Diaper Bank Network.

 — originally published in the Huffington Post, August 22, 2012.

Is It Luck?

I received an e-mail the other day that broke my heart. The young woman wrote that she cared for three children in diapers, one of whom was the niece her sister couldn’t take care of anymore. This woman did not work because daycare for three children cost more than she made. This arrangement worked while her fiancé was working, but he had recently, unexpectedly, lost his job. And now they couldn’t pay for diapers.

The young lady who sent me that e-mail describes both luck and choices. She and her fiancé were doing well enough that they chose to take in her niece so she could keep her niece from entering the child welfare system. That shows generosity — she was lucky enough to be able to help someone else. Then bad luck hit. Her fiancé, who had a good job, was laid off. Now she has three children under three years old, all in diapers. She thought she had made good choices and that she and her family were financially set. Turned out bad luck got in the way.

The trajectory of our lives is determined by a series of choices and luck, but it seems to me that many people discount how big a role luck plays. From the perspective of a baby, the family the baby is born into is a matter of luck. The child has no choice in this matter, and has done nothing one way or another to deserve one family more or less than the other. The child’s only action to this point is being born. As a studyreleased by the Urban Institute found, children born into wealth tend to live life as wealthier adults.

Children born into poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults than people who were not born into poverty. Among children who are never poor, only 1 percent spent half their early adult years living in poverty. On the other hand, 32 percent of persistently poor children go on to spend half their early adult years living in poverty.

Sometimes this luck translates into an ability to make choices. For example, according to the Social Science Research Council, if you were lucky enough to be born to educated parents, you are more likely to pursue a college degree.

Children whose parents have at least a college degree enter college at more than twice the rate of children whose parents did not graduate high school.

Although pursuing a college degree involves making a choice, it also involves luck. If there are simply too many obstacles — the cost of tuition is prohibitive, you can’t afford to pay the application fee or the fee to take the college board exams, or your family cannot afford for you to quit your afterschool job — you will in effect not have the opportunity to make the choice.

Our lives are certainly shaped by our innate qualities as human beings — raw intelligence, mechanical aptitude, the ability to relate to others, and so on — but our ability to capitalize on those qualities depends in large part on luck. Were you lucky enough to have a stable family life that allowed you to focus on schoolwork and training to perfect these qualities? Were you lucky enough to have the opportunity to exercise these qualities and turn them into an asset for future earnings or opportunities?

Your ability to rebound from these turns of luck also depends on luck — how much good or bad luck you had before. Maybe you can recover from one unlucky break, for example, you get laid off, but can you recover from several unlucky breaks? You lose your job, your neighbor has a fire in their apartment so you must evacuate and then someone rear ends your car in an accident — can you recover from all of that at once?

People living paycheck-to-paycheck might have the cushion necessary to sustain a little bit of bad luck. But a long run of bad luck probably not. Indeed, unless you are really lucky most of us don’t have the resources to carry us through a really long run of bad luck. And bad luck tends to beget more bad luck. You don’t have enough money for gas, so you have to rely on the bus, which is late, so you miss the big interview. You do not have enough money to buy diapers so you cannot bring your child to daycare so you lose a day’s wage. You literally cannot afford to work.

It is both luck and choices in my life that have allowed me to be in a position to help the young lady I described above find diapers. But what if I were less lucky? Would I be asking for diapers now? And would someone luckier than me choose to help?

In my life I have met many people who have had a lot of luck — good and bad and made lots of choices — both good and bad. My point is, regardless of your situation in life — both luck and choices play a role. We should all keep that in mind as we judge those around us.

Trucks Filled with Diapers

. . . are surprisingly hard to unload, particularly if the diapers were on pallets that were loaded on the truck sideways.  I can say this now from first hand experience, since I participated in my first truck unloading last week, as a board member of The Diaper Bank in North Haven, CT.  The Diaper Bank is serving as a hub for our east coast distribution of diapers this month, and received two truckloads of diapers, each containing 268,240 diapers.  The diapers in this truckload came on 30 pallets, or more precisely, what seemed to me to be 30 double decker pallets, which created a high and not entirely stable stack of diapers held together with shrink wrap.  Sort of.  When the pallet jack was operated by less experienced hands, the diapers could (and did) topple over, creating a cascade of boxes in the middle of the warehouse.

Have I mentioned this was my first actual experience with a truck full of diapers?  I have been on a board of The Diaper Bank for nearly three years, and part of my current work duties is to help orchestrate the flow of diapers across the country (although I admittedly leave most of the orchestration to the very capable and charming Chris Blake, senior vice president of our distribution partner, Kids in Distressed Situations).  But I had never before seen what a truck load of diapers looks like.  Now I have. It is a [expletive deleted] lot of diapers.

And the diapers were not loaded on nicely so that we could use the pallet jack to get them off relatively quickly (getting 30 pallets off a truck, even with a pallet jack is not a “quick” process).  The pallets were all turned, so initially we started unloaded box by box to clear one pallet out of the way to get the next off with the pallet jack.  (A pallet jack, for the uninitiated is sort of like a manual fork lift.  It has two long prongs which go into the openings at the bottom of the pallet and allows you to lift the pallet off the floor so you can roll the pallet away to where you want it in the warehouse.  But you need to be able to get to the two slots at the bottom of each pallet to use it.  If they are turned so that the slots are perpendicular to the side of the truck, and thus unaccessible, you can’t use the jack.)  Then the ever resourceful Kym Hunter, Program Director of The Diaper Bank, got the great idea to strap belts around the pallets so we could pull them into the open area of the truck so we could maneuver a pallet jack around to pick them up.  Not  quite as efficient as having straightforward access to the pallet slots, but a definite improvement over unstacking the pallets box by box. (Here’s a picture of Kym Hunter and Eboni Costi after wrestling a doubledecker pallet to the warehouse) 

Having seen how much space 268,240 diapers take, I now have a better appreciation for how many diapers that really is.  But I am also even more amazed when I realize how little that number will do to help the diaper need problem facing our nation.  Without getting into questions about sizes and such, and assuming an average of 50 diaper changes a week, 268,240 diapers would provide a week’s worth of diaper changes for 5,364 children, or a year’s worth of changes for about 104 children.  The Diaper Bank in North Haven helps 4000 families monthly.  Even if these diapers were going to stay in North Haven, they would be a great help, but not enough.  These diapers, however, are destined not only for The Diaper Bank, but will also be distributed to other diaper banks in the Northeast.  And there are still other trucks filled with diapers going out to other distribution points throughout the country (another shout out to Chris Blake–THANK YOU).

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, “So How Many Diapers Do We Need?,”  we need billions of diapers to help the 5.7 million infants and toddlers living in poor and low-income families. Every little bit helps–every package of diapers you bring to a local diaper bank helps a family in need, and every dollar you give can be used to buy diapers.   Help us close the diaper gap.  

Summer of Kindness

NDBN was mentioned recently in the July 2012 issue of Good Housekeeping, in an article entitled “50 Simple Acts of Kindness.”  (We’re at #12, which recommends donating diapers.)   Just for grins, and because it was Monday morning in the summer after an on-again-off-again sort of week, we decided to see how many of these suggested simple acts of kindness we currently have incorporated into our regular routine.  Among the three of us (yes, all this magic happens as the result of three people), we found we already do 30 on a regular basis.

The suggestions tend to fall into certain categories of daily living.  Many of these suggestions are what might be called common courtesy– letting the person behind you in line go first (#4) (I do this particularly if they only have a few items); holding the door open for someone (#7); and letting other cars merge onto the highway (#9).  Others are a form of recycling, recognizing that items you might have no need for may still be useful to others, such as donating professional clothes to organizations like Dress for Success (#18) or donating old cell phones to organizations that can use them, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (#25)  (there are also organizations that collect cell phones for the troops).  Donating old eye glasses to the Lions Club could also fall into this category, although the article does not mention it.  An extension of this category is the category of thoughtful giving–bringing combs, toothbrushes and toothpaste (and other hygiene items) to a homeless shelter (#8); loading extra money into a vending machine for the next person (#31); buying a book for a child (#38); and providing inexpensive coloring books and crayons to a pediatric ward (#5).   And still others fall into what my mother would call good manners–making others feel welcomed and thought of–relying an overheard comment (#37); rescuing a wallflower standing alone at a party (#48); and genuinely asking others how you can help (#50).   None of the suggestions are earth shattering, but each idea, if implemented, has the potential to make someone’s day a little brighter and easier, and to make the doer feel better about her place in the world.

We’ve decided that we are going to make it a point this summer to incorporate all of these suggestions into our regular routines.  With the hot weather, it’s easy for people’s nerves to be frayed, so it seems as if summer is a good time to exercise our kindness muscles.   It will allow all of us to exercise our baking skills (several suggestions involve giving neighbors and public servants like firefighters treats); make someone else’s day a little brighter; and do our part to improve life in our community and the world.

What other acts of kindness can you add to this list?  Consider starting your own summer of kindness, with a donation of diapers to your local diaper bank or social service agency, and a donation to the National Diaper Bank Network.

We’ll be charting our progress on this blog.  So for our first act (#39 on the list), here’s a video our Facebook friends pointed us to.   Enjoy. 

Some thoughts on Independence Day

Tomorrow we celebrate Independence Day, the official “birthday” of the United States.  Often, we celebrate by considering what it means to be an American.

One of the enduring aspects of the American character is our appreciation of the independent individual–the person who can make his or her way in the world without a helping hand.  But the truth is, we all need a helping hand.  Whether it is your parents or other caregiver who taught you how to walk, speak, and care for yourself, the teacher who taught you how to read, write, add, and think critically, the mentor who took you under his or her wing at work, or anyone else who lent a helping hand, we all can look back at a point in our lives when we needed help in obtaining the position we hold and the things have so we could be “independent individuals.”  In truth, one of the things that makes America great is that there are so many people in our lives willing to reach out and help others pull themselves up.

For families in need, diaper banks can provide that helping hand to achieving independence.  A family without diapers cannot place their children in quality child care, limiting their ability to go to work or school. A family without diapers can sink into a funk of despair and stress that makes it difficult to focus on any higher order need beyond clothing and feeding their children, resulting in less opportunity to stimulate children’s intellect and motor development to prepare them for success in life. A baby without diapers lives in daily discomfort, limiting his ability to absorb the world around him.  Diapers can help families and children focus on obtaining those skills and economic position that will allow them to succeed independently.

Help us help families in need to obtain the independence that is the American ideal.  Give generously to your local diaper bank, or consider holding a diaper drive in your community to celebrate what makes America great.

%d bloggers like this: