A Small Church’s Huge Ministry

December 03, 2013

St. Paul Diaper Bank Partnership

This year the Diaper Bank ministry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in McHenry, Illinois, is on track to collect, sort and distribute more than 260,000 disposable diapers to children of low-income families, disabled children and adults, those suffering through illness and seniors in need.

That is the work of a core group of four dedicated volunteers in a congregation that averages about 40 people on Sunday mornings.

"It's a huge ministry for this little parish," said the Rev. Lori Lowe, who arrived at St. Paul's as priest-in-charge in July 2012 and became its rector this fall. "There's a lot of pride in our congregation about being the diaper bank church.

"McHenry is a small town. There are three Episcopal churches in the county, all small, and we're the smallest. The Diaper Bank gives us a real profile, a real identity."

And it meets a very real and growing need, a need that led St. Paul's to hire the Rev. Phyllis Mueller as the ministry's first paid director. Mueller, who is a retired Presbyterian minister, works part-time and is tasked with enlisting the support and involvement of people and organizations beyond St. Paul's congregation. She brings with her a lot of experience managing and growing hands-on ministries. She was the co-founder and director of Home of the Sparrow in McHenry County, a transitional shelter ministry to homeless women and children, and she maintains a continuing drumming ministry called "Drumming for Health," a music health and wellness program she offers primarily to special needs populations, including those suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Mueller came on board as director of St. Paul Diaper Bank Partnership in January 2013; the changes were immediately apparent.

"She's turning it into a much more efficient operation," Lowe said. In addition to seeking additional funding and trying to broaden the volunteer base, Mueller is making the community aware of the program by penning letters to the editor and doing a lot of public speaking on the Diaper Bank's behalf. More and more organizations are hosting diaper drives and donating "Dollars for Diapers."

"The whole purpose of bringing me in is to get this ministry beyond the congregation and expand into the county and into northern Illinois," Mueller said.

The diaper bank's mission is three-fold. To:

  • Ensure families in poverty have an adequate supply of diapers for their infants, toddlers and adults
  • Raise community awareness that "basic human needs" includes diapers and that these needs are not being met for children and adults living in poverty
  • Be an advocate for policy reform so that diapers are included in the definition of and provision for the "basic human needs" of families.

Why are disposable diapers so important? Without them parents can't take their children to childcare, and without childcare, parents can't go to work. Plus, diapers are expensive. If money is tight, parents will opt to put food on the table rather than a clean diaper on the child.

"What I've learned from this ministry is you can't take a child to a daycare center with cloth diapers," Lowe said. "You have to have six to eight disposable diapers a day. Even if they had access to cloth diapers, these are not people living in an apartment with their own washer and dryer. These are people who are either going to a laundromat or using a community washing machine, and those places don't allow you to wash cloth diapers. Then there's the whole argument of the environment impact of disposable diapers, but then people will say that the hot water and chemicals are just as bad for the environment."

Mueller said she understands why people ask about cloth diapers.

"I love when someone asks me that because my answer is that I would give my right arm if we could go back to cloth diapers, but that's never going to happen. We're such a throwaway society. It is just the whole way our society is functioning. It makes it almost impossible.

"I will say this. The diaper manufacturers have made tremendous progress in the last five years in making the disposable diapers more biodegradable. And I'm thrilled, and they've got to keep doing this. It's a challenge."

Mueller said the support base must increase for the St. Paul Diaper Bank Partnership to grow.

"We keep a monthly track, and I think we're going to exceed the 260,000 diapers we distributed last year," she said. "We're certainly not going to do less. The important thing is that while that number seems vast, it is only half of the requested need from our county, so we really need to push it up to 500,000. We certainly won't get up to that in 2013, but we might in 2014.

"The need is only going to grow. We're seeing signs that people are having babies again; we're getting more and more requests for newborns and size 1's and 2's, so that's an indicator that the needs are going to go up. Plus, we have 76 million baby boomers coming at us, and out of that, there is a good percentage of people who are going to need some kind of incontinence care. So it is growing on that end as well. You cannot buy paper products through food stamps or WIC (the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). When you think about all these pieces on the table, you think, 'Oh my gosh, what are people going to do?'"

Mueller succeeds Larry Eils, a volunteer who led the diaper bank service for several years. The ministry was founded in 2009 under the initiative of the former rector of St. Paul's, the Rev. James E. Swarthout and Deacon Kent Jones. Mueller said it was the first diaper bank in Illinois and is believed to be one of the first five in the country. Now there are more than 320.

When Lowe arrived at St. Paul's in July 2012, the little church was literally drowning in diapers.

"When I first came here the diapers were kept stacked up in the parish hall, stacked up in the hallway. They were everywhere, and our partners who distributed the diapers would come pick them up at church, " said Lowe. "St. Paul's was making arrangements for a storehouse when I arrived, and about four months later we had a grant to rent warehouse space. All the diapers were moved to the warehouse, so the partners pick them up there. The bad part is the parish is not as connected; the good part is that we aren't inundated."

Rather than distribute to individuals, St. Paul's diapers are collected, stored and distributed primarily through the program's 14 social service partners that include food banks, senior centers, pregnancy centers, and domestic violence agencies.

"It started out very tiny and extremely fragile," Mueller said. "The four main volunteers are worker bees here. They work so hard, collecting and sorting before our partners pick up the diapers every Wednesday. Prior to my coming on, most people in the community had no idea what the Diaper Bank was. People on the street had no idea it existed or what it did."

The first few diaper banks were funded by a diaper manufacturer, Mueller said, but as the number of diaper banks grew (from a handful in 2009 to about 150 in 2011 to 320 this year), diaper manufacturers said they couldn't give away that many diapers. So diaper banks must raise the money to buy the diapers, which they usually get for a reduced rate from the diaper manufacturers.

"Diaper manufacturers stopped donating diapers in the year and a half that I've been here," Lowe said. "We try to get different organizations to have a diaper drive—local service clubs, schools and youth service clubs, churches. We have a standing box inside our double doors at church, and it's very common for me to drive up and see people dropping off diapers."

Mueller added, "A lot of gracious and understanding people are starting to get educated about the Diaper Bank and writing us checks. The volunteers are starting to expand. As soon as you educate people, they step forward." If you want to know more or would like to contribute dollars or diapers, contact Mueller at 815-385-0390 or via email.