Start Early to Close the Achievement Gap

By age 3, children in low-income families have smaller vocabularies than middle-class kids of the same age. This “achievement gap” persists throughout school and culminates in lower graduation rates for children growing up in poverty. I’m not offering a magic bullet to close the achievement gap. Complex problems, unfortunately, tend to require complex solutions. But I can think of two key elements to any effort to address the gap: We need to start early and we need to think broadly.

Remember, we’re seeing language deficits by age 3. We also know that those first three years are spent forming trillions of synapses — 90 percent of the brain development we’ll experience in our lifetimes. So the question is: Can a baby living in poverty have the rich experiences that encourage healthy development? We know that great early childhood education helps. Kids who participate in early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 times more likely go on to higher education.

People in my line of work are fond of referring to social programs as “investments.” It’s hard to think of any area were the term is more apt than early childhood. Kids in good early childhood programs achieve higher, contribute more in taxes and require less in public services. One study found that the return on investment in early childhood education is $17 for every $1 spent.

As I said, we need to think broadly and deliver services to poor families where and how they need them. For example, my community reserved some spots in high quality early childhood programs for low-income families, but we found the families that needed them most didn’t know about the program. So we used non-traditional marketing, like lawn signs, to get the word out.

Once families knew about the slots, there were still needs to be met. Most child care programs require parents to supply disposable diapers for their children. The neediest families simply couldn’t afford them. It took an entire non-profit organization to address that.

Hats off to the community in Lafayette, La., that is crafting a broad-based strategy to close the achievement gap, including:

… the creation of health and wellness teams (to) help address issues as they happen, rather than just letting students move through the school system without any intervention.

I believe Lafayette is able to be smart about boosting achievement, because it isn’t getting stuck in the “blame the victim” trap that so often accompanies discussions about poverty. In an interview with The Advertiser, United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan said: “The stereotype that poor parents don’t care, I know, is a myth.” The Advertiser reports, “She said many parents in poverty struggle with multiple jobs, odd shifts, problems getting adequate childcare and a lack of reliable transportation.”

Every family faces challenges. In poor communities, those challenges form a long and daunting list. If we want kids of all income levels to succeed, we need to find ways to scratch things off that list.

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

 

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on November 27, 2012.

Unnatural Disasters

When the Daily News sent truckloads of goods to Staten Island, it wasn’t the food and bottled water that got the most enthusiastic reception from residents battered by Hurricane Sandy.

“Thank God you guys had diapers, thank God theDaily News got diapers,” Salvatore Antonelli said as the News truck laden with the precious cargo arrived.

Antonelli said he and pal Regina Azzarelli have 11 grandchildren between them. And ever since Sandy struck last week, diapers have been in demand.

At the National Diaper Bank Network, we partnered with Huggies and the American Red Cross to get diapers to families hard-hit by the storm. We also got a call from an absolute angel of a man who is personally donating 20,000 diapers to children affected by the storm in New Jersey and New York. We were able to accept large donations and get diapers into disaster areas quickly thanks to our distribution partner, Kids in Distressed Situations. We were honored to be able to help babies in this time of need.

The generosity we’ve seen in the past week has been inspiring. The task of those of us who run non-profits is to find a better way to communicate need outside of these extraordinary events. Diapers, like food, water and housing, are a necessity. During a natural disaster like Sandy, we all recognize that.

But for many families, every day is a disaster where it’s a struggle to meet children’s basic needs. Yet the traditional safety net programs that benefit poor children, like WIC and Food Stamps, do not pay for diapers. Except in extreme circumstances, we don’t treat diapers like the necessities that they are.

One in three families struggles to provide diapers. As a result, babies are left in wet diapers and get rashes and infections. One in twenty moms reports emptying out soiled diapers and reusing them because she cannot afford to change her baby. Those are shocking statistics. Worse: They are unnecessary statistics.

The past week has shown what we can all do when we see people in need and then resolve to help. We need to translate that resolve into an ongoing commitment to reach out to families who are rocked by a layoff, an eviction or a hospital bill that’s more than a year’s pay. People face storms of many kinds. The question is: How committed are we to helping our neighbors weather them?

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

This post appeared originally in The Huffington Post on November 9, 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.

In Honor of Food Revolution Day

Tomorrow, May 19, is Food Revolution Day.  The basic premise is to stand up for healthy food and to share information, talents and resources and to highlight the world’s food issues.  Jamie Oliver, formerly known as the Naked Chef, now on a one-man crusade to bring healthy food to school children, is the mobilizing force behind Food Revolution Day.  But as Dr Bill Frist, the former U.S. Senator from Tennessee, notes in this thoughtful article from last February, access to healthy food is often one of the basic necessities not available to children in poverty.  More than 23 million people live in “food deserts”, which the USDA defines as any census district where at least 20 percent of the inhabitants are below the poverty line and 33 percent live over a mile from the nearest supermarket (or in rural areas, more than 10 miles).  As  Scientific America notes, there is a troubling correlation between food deserts and areas of increased incidents of diabetes and obesity. In the richest nation in the world, our children should not be without the basic necessities that will allow them to grow strong and healthy–healthy food, hygiene products like soap and diapers, and sound shelter.

Part of the problem may be that many people do not fully understand poverty in the country.  A recent poll by the Salvation Army found that most Americans do not know the poverty level, and misunderstand their neighbors in need. Surveying just over 1,000 individuals, the results revealed that while the public is sympathetic to the poverty crisis, it at times misunderstands the reasons why so many live in poverty. Indeed, the report found  that the farther removed from poverty a person is, the less common he or she believes poverty is in society.  The report also found that a majority of people believe that assistance to families in need can help set up children for success in escaping poverty, many Americans are unsure of what they can do to help others – and whether or not their assistance will actually help.

The truth is, assistance does help.  As Mark Shriver observes in this article, early intervention and early education programs can improve children’s academic success, lower obesity rates, and improve their indicators for success in life.   And private assistance helps as well.  As illustrated in this  documentary, a gift of something as elemental as diapers can help teenaged parents finish their studies, preparing them for the workforce and a life of economic self-sufficiency.  Donations to food banks can help ensure people receive the food they need to feed their families nutritious meals. And donations to diaper banks can help families ensure that their children are clean and dry.  In honor of Food Revolution Day, embrace the idea that access to basic necessities like good food and clean diapers can make a difference, and donate generously to your local food bank and diaper bank.

Diapers: They’re not just for babies

I received a call a few days ago from a woman looking for some source of assistance for her brother who suffered from incontinence and had to wear what are commonly known as adult diapers.  Our posts on this blog have tended to address the diaper need that affects babies and their families; however, many adults, particularly seniors living on limited incomes, suffer from incontinence.  Many of these people have difficulty affording adult incontinence supplies and diapers.  And their lives, and those of their families and loved ones, are adversely affected by the lack of access to incontinence supplies.

Urinary incontinence affects approximately 13 million persons in the United States, with as many as 25 million experiencing transient or ongoing incontinence.  Most of these people are older adults, many of whom may be living on limited incomes with limited buying power once medical expenses are factored in.  In addition, many disabled people are obliged to wear diapers for a variety of reasons, incontinence and inability to use a bathroom unaided among the most common.

Often, people dealing with incontinence problems are among those who have the fewest resources.  According to the Cornell University Online Resource for U.S. Disability Statistics in 2009, an estimated 26.4% percent of the population between 21 and 64 with a disability had incomes below the poverty line.  These numbers only include people with disabilities who are living independently, either alone or with family – not those who are institutionalized and have greater access to care.  According to the U.S. Census Current Population Survey in 2010 9% of adults 65 and older lived below the federal poverty line. However, using the U.S. Census Bureau’s alternative measurement of poverty, as many as 16.1% of U.S. seniors are living in poverty once medical care and other costs of living are factored in.  Elderly Americans spend on average 19% of their total income on out-of-pocket medical expenses annually. Out-of-pocket expenses include health insurance premiums, medical copayments, and prescriptions.  Once those costs are paid, however, many seniors are unable to pay for critical services.

Many insurance programs and Medicare programs will not pay for adult diapers, particularly if the incontinence is not diagnosed as a separate medical condition.  Even when it is identified as a separate condition, some state run Medicare will not pay for diapers even if they pay for other supplies.  (You can find your state’s coverage by using this link and finding Urological supplies.)

It is estimated that by 2015 one in four Americans will be over the age of 65. At a time when communities need to be building infrastructure and planning to care for our increasing aging populations, services are instead being reduced for even the lowest-income seniors.

In “A Report to the Community,” the Community Needs Assessment Process 2006–2009 Area Plan on Aging report, Pima Council on Aging, an Arizona Senior Service Agency, identified as major problem areas for their community “lack of sufficient income to meet basic needs; lack of transportation and affordable health care, including dental care; need for in-home support, including home maintenance and repair; isolation and need for advocacy. The overriding concern of seniors is to find ways in which to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible.”  According to the National Association for Continence, incontinence is the second leading reasons for institutionalization of the elderly in nursing homes and 53% of homebound older persons are incontinent.

Many diaper banks provide incontinence supplies for adults.  The supplies distributed by local diaper banks through their partner organizations are part of a larger continuum of services that not only supports older adults in remaining in their own homes, but also contributes to their dignity and quality of life. If not for a diaper bank’s monthly incontinent supply donations to their partner agencies many local community’s elderly would be unable to leave their homes to due to fear of embarrassment, and would live in compromised comfort even while at home.  Many diaper banks provide monthly incontinent supply donations to their partner agencies because the local community’s disabled would suffer decreased quality of life, ranging from constant discomfort due to accidents to being unable to leave their homes.

Adult incontinent supplies are not donated as often as baby diapers and cost a great deal more.  As a result, diaper banks sometimes have trouble maintaining a reliable supply of adult diapers.   Consider donating to your local diaper bank to help them acquire the incontinence supplies that could make a meaningful improvement in the quality of life for a disabled person or an older person.  If you do not have a diaper bank nearby, consider donating to the National Diaper Bank Network.

Raising Awareness

One of our stated goals at the National Diaper Bank Network is to raise awareness of diaper need.  By “raising awareness,” we mean spreading the word that there are people in the United States who struggle to provide clean, dry diapers for their children, and that there are organizations like diaper banks that can help these people obtain the diapers they need.  This process of telling people that other people need and cannot afford diapers is so much a part of organizing and running a diaper drive or a diaper bank that even directors of diaper banks sometimes are unconscious of how often they “raise awareness” as they work to raise diapers and funds and connect people with diapers. And because the need is so apparent to those of us who deal with the issue everyday, we almost forget that not everyone thinks about how necessary diapers are to a family with very young children.   But diaper need is often not immediately self-evident to those who no longer rely on diapers (for themselves or their family members). They need to be reminded that children without clean diapers suffer from diaper rash and other health problems, and that a baby crying because of a wet diaper that cannot be changed because there are no more diapers adds to the stressors on parents struggling to make ends meet.  We think that the more directions from which the message is sent, the more likely it is to take root.

For that reason, we are thrilled whenever we see someone commenting on the need for diapers and letting others know there is such a need.  In his blog documenting an experiment to conduct 366 Random Acts of Kindness this year, Ryan describes giving diapers to the Bundle of Joy Diaper Bank in Chicago after researching what to do with his baby’s unused diapers.  We also recently learned of Pastor Eric’s planned Ride across America for Diapers, in which he will ride from Washington State to Washington, DC, spreading word about the desperate need for diapers in many communities in this country.  The more messengers carrying the message, the farther it will travel.

As we raise awareness of the need, it is also important to remind people that there are many dedicated individuals and organizations working to address the need in their communities and across the country, otherwise the problem can seem  insurmountable.  Many diaper banks were formed in isolation, and we have only just begun to build this network of diaper banks, so many people who may be aware of diaper need may not be aware of the actions that they can take in their communities to help.  But we anticipate that as word spreads about NDBN and the network of diaper banks located in communities throughout the country that people will be encouraged to seek out their local diaper bank to make a contribution to help or, for those located in areas where there is no diaper bank, start a diaper bank of their own.

Tell everyone that there is a need for diapers and why, and how they can help.  Embrace your local media, and seek opportunities to talk about the need in your communities.  And when you meet someone spreading the word–whether on a bicycle or on a blog–embrace them as a fellow convert, and let them know what you are doing to help.  Also, let people know we’re here to help, whether to frame the issue of diaper need, draft press releases,  share collective knowledge, or help fledgling diaper banks get off the ground and existing diaper banks expand to address their community’s need.

Communication and Community

Communication is a critical aspect of any new social enterprise.  And communication, to be effective, has to be a two way street. We’ve reached out to you and you’ve reached out to us–we’re continually amazed at the number of committed, caring people we’ve met volunteering to step up and create diaper pantries and diaper banks to help people in their communities.  We hope that anyone interested in learning more about diaper need feels free to call or email or post to our Facebook account (comments here are good too) with any questions they might have.  We are here to help.

But we also want to make sure that you are talking among yourselves and sharing all the creative ideas you have.  One of our missions at NDBN is to create a community of diaper banks that will interact with other diaper banks, helping to foster and encourage new banks and to share best practices so  we can all share our  lessons learned. On Wednesday, we launched a Google group for diaper bank leaders to talk among themselves and share their best practices directly.  The group has been busy all day as diaper bank leaders swap ideas to maximize the effectiveness of diaper drives and stretch limited funds buy the most diapers.  It is great to see the network really forming among and between diaper banks–so many committed people tackling diaper need in so many creative ways.  If you’d like to join the conversation, send us an email at info@diaperbanknetwork.org.

But in addition to learning from each other, sometimes it’s good to learn from an expert.  Our next webinar, Grant Writing for Diaper Banks, will feature Jennifer Heath,the Executive Vice President of the United Way of Greater New Haven, who will provide her expertise on what makes a successful grant proposal.  Make plans to join us on Wednesday, April 11, at 3:00 Eastern.  For more information, send us an email at info@diaperbanknetwork.org.

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