United Way of Mid Coast Maine looked to distribute more than 130,000 diapers in the Bath area this year through its Diaper Project. Mary Gaul Wallace, at left, is a community engagement coordinator with the organization, and Barbara Reinertsen is its executive director. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BATH — The Diaper Project, launched by United Way of Mid Coast Maine in 2014, was earlier this month on track to distribute more than 130,000 diapers to parents in Sagadahoc and Lincoln Counties, as well as Brunswick and Harpswell.

But the coronavirus pandemic could negatively impact that projection.

The program, funded primarily through donations and grants, distributed about 23,000 diapers its first year to parents who struggle to afford them, and reached nearly 122,000 last year.

Diaper Project coordinator Mary Gaul Wallace said one major obstacle was created when the United Way’s offices closed due to the coronavirus pandemic because the UW is where the diapers are stored and packaged. On top of that, diaper availability has become a major issue.

“With all the bulk and panic buying it has become increasingly difficult for us to find diapers at all,” said Wallace, a community engagement coordinator with United Way.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is able to use the diapers United Way has stored to provide for its clients. Midcoast Maine Community Alliance distributes United Way’s collected diapers as well.

“At this point, we are working to make a plan on how to keep the food pantries supplied,” Wallace said. “They all should have enough through this week.”

The program has been a boon for people like Bobbi Gauthier. Along with all the challenges and stress that can come with being a mother to two young children, she has struggled at times to afford diapers.

Their father is a worm digger, a job that can be particularly challenging in the winter, making money that much tighter, the Bath woman said.

But thanks to the Diaper Project, Gauthier could replenish her supply in times of need.

This graph shows how diaper demand has grown since United Way launched the Diaper Project in 2014.

“At the discounted rate that we buy diapers for, the cost for these diapers is still close to $20,000,” said Barbara Reinertsen, executive director of the Bath-area United Way.

“It’s a great program,” Gauthier said. “It definitely helps us out through the winter.”

She buys 50-60 diapers at a time, which, she said “usually doesn’t even last between two kids.” Through United Way she gets two bags for each child, which contains about 20 diapers.

“If I run out and don’t have money for more, they say ‘you can come back and get more,'” Gauthier said.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), do not provide funding assistance for diapers.

“It’s federal regulations on what they can support,” Reinertsen said, adding “there is no government-funded program we know of that pays for these essential items.”

Still, the Midcoast WIC office, which Gauthier accesses, is among the partner organizations that United Way distributes to.

Those organizations reported that they distributed an average of 270 per child in 2019. United Way estimates that it provides diapers for nearly 500 children in the area, Reinertsen said.

“We don’t know for sure if the overall need for diapers has changed, but the demand on our Diaper Project continues to grow as more and more families in need and the nonprofits that serve them discover that this help is available,” she said.

Babies require as many as 10 diapers a day, and toddlers about eight, which cost between $60 and $80 a month per baby, according to Mary Gaul Wallace, who coordinates the Diaper Project.

Reinertsen said she recently heard one parent say that when their child was finally out of diapers, it was like getting a pay raise.

“This is a huge financial burden for many young families,” Reinertsen said. “Not having enough diapers to keep a child clean, dry, and healthy is a major stressor for parents and child, which can be bad for long-term physical and mental health.”

Being in a soiled diaper too long can expose a baby to undue stress that can negatively impact their physical and mental health, Wallace said.

Most child care facilities, even those that are free or subsidized, require parents to drop off a day’s supply of disposable diapers; cloth diapers aren’t allowed. Many parents cannot go to work without being able to leave their babies at child care, Wallace said.

While cloth diapers are reusable, many child care centers won’t accept them. Many parents can’t afford a laundry service, or they don’t have a washing machine. Wallace noted: “It just isn’t practical for the population we’re serving.”

United Way coordinates diaper drives and diaper donations at settings like workplaces, purchases diapers in bulk at discounted prices, and coordinates volunteers to repackage them so they are ready to hand to parents, she said. The organization then distributes them to agencies that work directly with families in need, such as food pantries, Head Start education programs, and home visitors.

With diaper demand rising each year, United Way is in need of volunteers to help with packaging and delivery, as well as organizing diaper drives and coordinating volunteers. Those interested can reach Wallace at  [email protected] or 443-9752.

The Diaper Project has “just gotten to be a victim of its own success,” Reinertsen said. “… It just takes more people power than you might imagine.”

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