Photos by: Jeff Tuttle
Story by: Chris Green
Kansas City area nonprofit HappyBottoms drives change by going well beyond the traditional charitable drive.
At first, Jill Gaikowski didn’t know what a diaper drive was or why a charity would focus on collecting diapers.
As she learned more, it led her to want to seek a more systemic solution to a problem she hadn’t known existed beforehand. In 2010, she started HappyBottoms, a Lenexa-based nonprofit that serves as Kansas City’s diaper bank. It would become an effort that embodies the idea that while leadership can start with you, it must engage others.
Gaikowski discovered that something as basic as having fresh diapers for your baby is beyond the reach of many people. Government safety-net programs don’t provide aid for diapers, which can be a huge expense ($80 to $100 a month) for low-income families.
As a result, families hovering just above or below the poverty line made do as best they could, which often meant their babies went without fresh diapers, creating health risks for as many as 21,000 children in the Kansas City metro area. Cloth diapers aren’t a viable option for many families because they can’t wash soiled diapers at a laundromat or carry them on public transit.
A lack of diapers also feeds a vicious cycle of poverty. Child care centers often require parents to provide disposable diapers, and if they can’t, they may not be allowed to enroll. Without access to child care, parents can’t work or educate themselves, the very things they need to get ahead.
But not too long after she had gotten started, Gaikowski found her family being pulled to the Minneapolis area by a job relocation. Her challenge suddenly became contributing to the creation of infrastructure at HappyBottoms that would allow the organization to thrive without her.
“Jill sat and looked at the biggest need, which was to create a strategic plan and start looking at how we were going to build this organization,” says board member Liz Sutherlin.
Using a sophisticated data collection system, the organization now repackages and warehouses diapers it distributes to 35 social services agencies on both sides of the state line that provide them to families in need at 47 locations. The agencies provide the demographic data that allows HappyBottoms to ensure that its volunteers create packages providing the correct sizes of diapers to each individual child.
“Poverty is a complicated, huge puzzle. Diapers are just a piece of it, but a really big piece when it comes to getting families out of poverty and into positions of lifelong success.”
John Teasdale, Executive Director, HappyBottoms
The organization also works with five hospital systems to distribute diapers to newborns. It’s a system that weaves volunteers, social service providers and the families themselves together to maximize efficiency and impact and to prevent duplication.
In 2015, HappyBottoms distributed 1.62 million diapers to help 7,806 children throughout the region. The goal is to increase that reach to 10,000 children. Doing so will require more funding, partnerships with more agencies, and enough volunteers and warehouse space to serve the community, executive director John Teasdale says.
“Poverty is a complicated, huge puzzle,” Teasdale says. “Diapers are just a piece of it, but a really big piece when it comes to getting families out of poverty and into positions of lifelong success.”
It’s a puzzle that Gaikowski will once again play a role in helping solve. Earlier this year she returned to the organization for a second stint as a grant writer and development specialist.
It’s a larger, more impactful organization than when she left, which is perhaps a testament to the kind of leadership that looks long term and engages others at building something bigger together.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe