Meagan Johnson was volunteering at the Bay View Community Center in 2020, helping its efforts to support parents with children, when she had an epiphany.
The stay-at-home mom used cloth diapers with her two children and was researching how to make them accessible to low-income families. She looked for a standalone diaper bank in Milwaukee and found none. Then she learned that one in three families in the United States struggled to afford diapers.
It gave him a mission.
Along with her cousin, Jessica Syburg, she conducted research on how to organize and have the most impact. Afterwards, the two started Milwaukee Diaper Mission in his garage, then moved into an 800 square foot office.
Today, Johnson is executive director of the organization, which is housed in a 5,000 square foot warehouse in Franklin. “It went from being a bit of a curiosity, to a hobby, and now to a full-time job,” Johnson said.
Syburg retired once the effort was up and running to pursue another career path. “She always encourages us,” Johnson said.
The all-volunteer organization has expanded to supply period supplies in an effort to fill another gap in basic hygiene products. It is estimated that two out of five menstruating women struggle to get supplies due to income issues.
Milwaukee Diaper Mission receives donations from drop boxes located throughout Milwaukee, and volunteers gather these donations and bring them to the Franklin warehouse to be packaged.
Diaper packs consist of 25 diapers. The organization offers cloth diapers, pull-ups and swim diapers, as well as baby wipes.
Three different types of menstrual kits are put together: sanitary napkin kits, tampon kits, and reusable kits. Reusable menstrual kits contain menstrual cups, cloth pads and menstrual underwear.
“The dignity of choice is important. We want to make sure families have options,” Johnson said.
The organization partners with local agencies to distribute diapers and menstrual supplies to the families they serve. These agencies range from food pantries and home visiting agencies to organizations that support families during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Diaper Mission supplies are distributed free of charge.
Since its creation, it has distributed nearly half a million diapers, more than 150,000 disposable hygiene products and more than 10,000 packets of baby wipes. The organization estimates its average monthly distribution at 300 menstrual kits and enough diapers to support more than 1,400 children.
Car seat and stroller maker Nuna and the Milwaukee Bucks are among its biggest supporters. When Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mariah Riddlesprigger welcomed their second child last August, they contacted Johnson and organized a week-long diaper drive.
“The community here in Milwaukee has really put their arms around us as an organization and lifted us up in ways we couldn’t imagine,” Johnson said. “We are so grateful.”
Member of a national network
The gap that Milwaukee Diaper Mission is trying to fill is significant.
Milwaukee has become a poorer city since the turn of the century, according to an analysis of US Census Bureau data by the Lubar Center for Public Policy and Civic Education at Marquette University School of Law. In real dollars, Milwaukee households earn $6,000 less a year today than they did in 2000. The decline is particularly steep among black and Latino families.
By most measures, Milwaukee is one of the five poorest cities in the nation.
Disposable diapers can cost $70 to $80 per month per baby, and that cost can increase if a parent has limited transportation and buys from a convenience store instead of a big-box outlet. Most daycares require parents to provide at least one day’s worth of disposable diapers.
The Diaper Mission is now part of the National Diaper Bank Network and the Alliance for Period Supplies, giving it access to bulk purchasing options.
Nationally, 57% of parents in need of diapers who rely on childcare said they missed an average of four days of school or work in the past month because they had no of diapers, according to the Diaper Bank Network. And a third of low-income women report missing work, school or other commitments due to lack of access to vintage supplies, according to the Alliance.
“I have seen time and time again a level of poverty that we often think does not exist in the United States,” said Joanne Goldblum, who leads the two Connecticut organizations. “Every child, every person deserves at least to have their basic material needs met.”
Instead of each diaper bank recreating the wheel, Goldblum said, she found it imperative to partner with other banks to create a collective voice and meet the needs of different communities. The network now connects about 250 organizations like the Milwaukee Diaper Mission nationwide.
“Contribute to the greater good”
Nicole Dachs has volunteered at Milwaukee Diaper Mission every Wednesday for the past six months. As a volunteer, Dachs assembles menstrual kits and takes inventory of products.
“I love being part of things that are bigger than me and feeling like I’m contributing to the greater good and helping people,” Dachs said.
Dachs has three children and said she couldn’t imagine not being able to afford necessities like menstrual supplies and diapers, so she thinks it’s wonderful that Johnson has been able to help so many people in such a short time.
“I hadn’t realized the need and how many people were struggling to pay for diapers,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was a matter of not being able to go to work because you didn’t have the right products to take care of day-to-day things.”
Friedens Food Pantries is one of Milwaukee Diaper Mission’s distribution partners, with four locations in Milwaukee – Coggs Center, Despensa de la Paz, Hope House and Zion Rock. Prior to the partnership, Friedens did not have enough diapers for the communities she serves.
They were only able to distribute five diapers per child, said Aleka Shewczyk, Friedens’ operations manager.
Now they can distribute one full package of diapers and wipes per child.
“We see a significant number of children,” Shewczyk said. “Being able to give them a full package of diapers and wipes makes a huge difference for families. We are able to provide them with a good quantity and a constant supply.
As a mother of four herself, Shewczyk said it’s especially rewarding to provide other mothers and families with the resources they need.
All of this prompts Johnson to raise awareness about diaper and period poverty, and to continue to make sure those basic needs are met.
“The ultimate goal,” she says, “is to end the need for diapers and menstrual poverty.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Diaper Mission helps low-income families with essentials