Megan Mullins was browsing Craigslist, looking for baby things, when one "Wanted" plea seemed to leap off the screen: a woman who had just recently moved to town, in desperate need for diapers for her toddler.
Mullins had two children herself, the younger a newborn, and after an e-mail exchange decided to bring some diapers over to the other mom, who sobbed with gratitude. A second Craigslist session turned up another needy family; this time Mullins' husband Myron delivered the diapers to a gas station meeting point. The grateful recipient, a Muslim, literally knelt and kissed Myron's hand.
When he got back home, he told Megan, "I'm all in," she remembers. "It was so moving, like something you'd see in a movie."
That was three and half years ago. Since then, the couple's ever-growing diaperLove non-profit has provided 800,000-plus disposable diapers to those in need. They serve around 20 recipients a day at the least demanding times, and upwards of 125 per day during high demand cycles, like in the cold months or during the holiday season. One of Myron's other businesses, Purely Products, donates 10 percent of sales to diaperLove, and the non-profit uses that money and other donations to buy diapers from Cuties at a substantial discount, and also assists organizations to hold diaper drives at local businesses or events. The latest, at the Jan. 19 Lady Vols basketball game, netted "tons" of diapers, Megan says.
But they'll all be needed, pretty much immediately and here's why: While several worthy groups strive to provide the working poor and homeless with food or shelter, there's a serious void when it comes to diapers. Those who have never been struggling to make a non-living-wage budget cover the average 12 diapers a day per infant or eight per toddler may not realize another harsh reality: WIC benefits and food stamps cannot be used to purchase diapers. And while some local food banks and charities will issue emergency diapers, they tend to be in 10- or 20-increments, which offers relief only for a few days.
This leaves struggling parents sometimes having to triage diaper use, balance it against, say, food, or rent that must be met or the family will face eviction. The reality is that many parents must opt to change only a bowel movement diaper, and leave a baby in wet diapers for hours—even a day—at a time. "You would not even believe what people have to do—more than one time, I've seen someone reduced to using a towel and duct tape—it's just heartbreaking," says Megan.
And diaper costs are substantial, usually about $100 per month per child who's being changed each time she wets or has a bowel movement. Cloth diapers can cost less, but most households struggling to make ends meet don't have the wherewithal to wash them—and most daycares for those much-needed jobs require a day's supply of disposables or they won't keep a child.
Megan says all these factors drive them to provide diapers to as many as they can reach, one box of diapers per quarter per child, usually enough to provide for a child's dry bottom for at least a month.
While Mullins doesn't have studies to explain why, she says the need seems to be increasing with every passing month at their warehouse on Cogdill Road in West Knoxville—even though it's not on a bus line or particularly accessible to those in other areas of Knoxville. "People are in desperate need for these diapers, and they find a way to get out here to pick them up," she says. "We don't make deliveries to other neighborhoods, but we do have some volunteers who will help out in some circumstances. Every month, we're giving out more and more."
Many of those served are presently unemployed, single women whose husbands or boyfriends have left, says Megan. "But it's not just single moms—we get fathers and grandparents, too."
The number of requests is growing so quickly they will probably have to require more proof of need in the near future, says Megan. "Right now, it's just if you need them."
The nonprofit garnered some recognition from Walmart's Facebook giving initiative, 12 Days of Giving, being selected Dec. 13 as one of just 145 nonprofits to get $5,000 grants from among more than 5,400 nominees. "They rose to the top because they are clearly addressing an essential need that others aren't getting to—and we wanted to recognize those organizations that were really providing essentials in their community, especially in these tough times," says Kelly Cheeseman, a spokesperson for the Walmart foundation and one of the staff that reviewed nominations.
DiaperLove has already expanded to a second location in Cleveland, Tenn., and would like to increase the number of centers it operates. They'd also like to tackle one of the sources of the diaper shortfall. "We're desperately trying to change the law that says food stamps and WIC cannot buy diapers, at least here in Tennessee if not throughout the U.S.," Megan says. "We have board members and friends who know people, and we're trying to get there, but so far we're still making phone calls, working our way up the ladder."
Megan's work also includes caring for her now three children; the oldest 4 1/2, the youngest 6 months.
"When my daughter goes number 2, I always think, ‘I get to change her right away!'" she says. "I'm so blessed, even if she's just wet I can change her. All my e-mails come through my phone, and I can just sit here and watch the requests come through, the people who don't have enough, who can't change a diaper when it's wet. I can't even imagine."
She still thinks about that first Craigslist message she just came across, too. "God delivered this message to me that I needed to help out these babies," she says. "He's blessed us so much, I want to be able to bless these babies as well."