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Grassroots groups help struggling young families when resources are scarce

Ellen Abbott
Diapers from the Syracuse Diaper Bank set up at the Samaritan Center in Syracuse

Resources for families with young children can be scarce, from diapers to milk. Often, there is no government assistance to help struggling families with these necessities. But there are grassroots organizations that step up at the local level to help new families. 

Allison Brooks of the Salvation Army in Syracuse said the need for diapers hit home for her a few years ago when she was working at a food pantry.

“And a family walked in looking for diapers, and the child was wrapped in a Wegmans bag,” said Brooks.  “That was one of the saddest days for me. There was toilet paper and paper towels with a Wegmans bag wrapped around the baby. And they had to make that work because they had no diaper.”

For struggling families, buying diapers is often lost in the shuffle of surviving day by day. Unless there’s a donation, they aren’t available at food banks. There’s no government assistance that pays for them, and they’re expensive. Not only that, they are bulky, which adds extra stress to a housing vulnerable family, according to Vadra Skinkle, who works with homeless mothers in Syracuse shelters.

“She has limited space, usually a locker. So they’re fitting their whole life in a locker,” said Skinkle. “That’s got to be a struggle. So you’d think this big box of diapers isn’t really the thing you are going to choose, if you have to choose over everything in your whole life.”

Diaper banks bridge the gap in many communities, but not in Syracuse until two years ago when stay-at-home mom Michela Hugo realized the problem.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Michela Hugo packs diapers for distrubution

"There’s over 300 around the country, and Syracuse, with such a high rate of poverty, I assumed we would have one, but we didn’t,” said Hugo. “It was something I couldn’t turn away from once I learned about the need.”

On a cold January day, Hugo, a former teacher, stuffs diapers that have been repackaged in cellophane into a big blue bag, and waits for a volunteer from a local health agency to pick them up. While the Diaper Bank collects diapers, they are distributed by agencies that serve low-income families.

“The majority of our diaper recipients, over 60 percent, have at least one adult working in the household,” said Hugo. “But diapers are so expensive, and for a low income family, who’s buying a small pack at a time, the cost of a diaper is higher, they can spend over $100 a month diapering one child.”

Once a month, Syracuse’s Samaritan Center combines a diaper giveaway with a meal for families with young children. Tables are piled high with donated clothes, books and toys.  The smell of hot dogs wafts in the air.  But the first stop is always the Diaper Bank table.

Sharon Gilchrist, Brian Rendino and Sharkea Long are among the first in line.

“I usually come here when I can’t afford it during the week, and it helps out a lot,” said Gilchrist.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Brian Rendino of Syracuse picks up diapers at the Samaritan Center in Syracuse

“It actually is a great thing. I appreciate that these people do this thing for people, because there’s times we run out of money for diapers, and we can’t go and buy them,” said Rendino.

"It helps us pay other bills, and keep things afloat, because diapers go by quick,” said Long.

And if the diaper bank weren’t here?

"I’d have to cut back on something. I don’t know what it would be but I’d have to cut back,” said Long.

Hugo said diapers do more than keep young children dry and healthy.

"There’s been studies done that show that moms who experience diaper needs have higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety,” she said. “That passes on to their children. That has lifelong consequences.”

There are also lifelong consequences for children when it comes to nutrition. Research shows breast milk is preferable to formula especially in the early months of a child’s life. But when a mother isn’t able to breastfeed, there is an option: Breast milk banks.

At Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, breastfeeding mothers at the hospital donate enough milk to fill Crouse’s in-house milk bank. The anti-bodies and substances in human milk are especially important for premature babies, who are at higher risk of getting a potentially deadly infection called Necrotizing Enterocolitis or NEC.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Breast milk is stored at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse to give to babies who need it

According to Erin Coleman, nurse manager at Crouse’s Neonatal ICU, breast milk has almost totally wiped out the instance of that infection in premature newborns, some who are born as early as 23 weeks.

“Our rate is less than 1 percent of NEC over the last five years.  And that’s because we are not feeding our premature infants formula, we are feeding them breast milk,” said Coleman.

While Crouse has its own breast milk bank, other hospitals buy it from milk banks. The New York Milk Bank carefully screens mothers who drop excess breast milk at depots across the state. It’s pasteurized and then distributed. So far, in the two years the milk bank has been in existence, Executive Director Julia Bouchet-Horwitz said nursing mothers have been very generous.

"We have been astounded at the women who have come forward to donate their milk,” said Bouchet-Horowitz. “So we have enough for premature infants, full-term infants, adopted babies, babies born through gestational carriers, gay families, foster babies, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of milk so we can feed all the babies who need it.”

This donated breast milk isn’t cheap however, running at an average of $4 an ounce to cover screening and pasteurization. Bouchet-Horwitz says that’s why it’s so important that New York State recently became one of a handful of states that allows Medicaid coverage for donor breastmilk for premature babies. But each state has different rules when it comes to reimbursement. 

Bouchet-Horwitz dreams of a day when a national network of breast milk banks provides the best nutrition a baby can get.

“If we were somehow able to tap into a system, where throughout the United States, women who had too much milk could donate anywhere throughout the United States, if they are approved as a donor, and that milk could be available in a pharmacy with a prescription and paid for by insurance to any baby that needs milk, that would be phenomenal,” she said.