Boston Program Provides Diapers for Working Poor

Chrissy O'Keefe  and her baby

Chrissy O'Keefe receives a two-week supply of free diapers from Baby Basics, enough to keep baby Abigail clean and dry. Elaine Korry, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elaine Korry, NPR

For low-income families, keeping babies clean and dry can be an expensive obstacle. A program in Boston that offers working poor families free diapers is easing some of the frustrations of parents.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Sometimes little things can make a world of difference, especially to people who are living on the edge financially. NPR's Elaine Korry visited a neighborhood in Boston where one woman's simple mission is helping others keep their babies clean and dry.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

All babies need love and nourishment, but there's something else they need, diapers, up to seven a day. And at the rate of 200 diapers per month, the expense really adds up.

Ms. CHRISTINE O'KEEFE (Parent): The diapers cost so much, it would probably be at least $50 a month or more.

KORRY: And that's $50 Christine O'Keefe just doesn't have. O'Keefe is a 25-year-old single mother who looks much younger. She often takes her toddler Abby(ph) to the park after work.

Ms. O'KEEFE: You want to run?

ABBY: No.

Ms. O'KEEFE: No. But look, we're at the park.

ABBY: Oh.

Ms. O'KEEFE: Oh.

ABBY: Swings.

Ms. O'KEEFE: Swings. Do you want the swing or the slide?

KORRY: Chrissie(ph), as everyone calls her, is one of those wage earners known as the working poor. She's a teacher's assistant at a Head Start center, making about $10 per hour. She doesn't qualify for welfare, although she can barely make ends meet. She does receive some aid. Abby is well-fed, thanks to the government nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC. And through a WIC referral, Chrissie now has one less worry, paying for diapers, thanks to a woman she doesn't even know.

Ms. JEAN ANN LYNCH (Baby Basics): My name is Jean Ann Lynch, and I am the founder of Baby Basics.

KORRY: Baby Basics is the free diaper program Lynch started in 1992. She picked diapers because every baby needs them and no social agency was providing them. A grandmother and retired teacher, Lynch knew poor mothers sometimes skimped on diapers, and she knew that can set off a chain reaction of painful rashes, screaming babies, stressed-out parents and, in rare cases, even child abuse. Lynch began Baby Basics on a shoestring in New Jersey. It grew so fast, the Red Cross took it over. Then she moved to Boston and began working in a hardscrabble, mostly Irish neighborhood.

Ms. LYNCH: And now we're crossing the Broadway Bridge into south Boston, Southie.

KORRY: Soon, we pass the Old Colony Housing Project. Life inside these rundown three-story brick buildings is pretty grim. Confronted with such obvious need, Lynch opened a new Baby Basics nearby.

(Soundbite of people talking; box being opened)

KORRY: The white-steepled Fourth Presbyterian Church is the program's new home. Inside a community hall, mountains of diapers in cardboard boxes are piled on folding tables. Volunteer Dianne Thatcher(ph) is about to dispense nearly 10,000 of them to 50 needy families.

Ms. DIANNE THATCHER (Volunteer): And we break apart the boxes. They get three packages of diapers, and each package of diapers has 36 in them. So that's enough to get them through to the next distribution.

KORRY: The families arrive and sign in: an Asian woman with an infant in a sling, a Latino couple carrying twins, and, of course, Chrissie O'Keefe and baby Abby.

Unidentified Man: Uh-oh.

Unidentified Woman #1: And what size is she in now?

Ms. O'KEEFE: She's a five.

Unidentified Woman #1: Is she a five?

ABBY: That's diapers.

Ms. O'KEEFE: Diapers, yeah.

KORRY: Baby Basics never set out to solve all the problems of poverty, just this one. Last year, it took Ann about $42,000 from foundations and private donors. The program only serves working people for a simple reason, says Jean Ann Lynch.

Ms. LYNCH: Because no one else was doing it. We found that these are the people that fall through the cracks, that are making minimum wage or slightly above that, that receive no benefits.

KORRY: They're the ones who serve coffee at Dunkin' Donuts or make the beds at fancy hotels. The families are proud, hardworking and grateful for the help. Chrissie O'Keefe says because of Baby Basics, Abby has never gotten a diaper rash, and she's looking toward the future, something she couldn't have done on her own.

Ms. O'KEEFE: I'd always be living day to day, where this way, I put the money that I would be spending on diapers away because I want to be able to save some money. Sometimes when the bills are high, I dig into it a little, but mostly, I keep that in a bank account that I don't touch.

KORRY: Chrissie's long-term goal is to save enough money to go back and finish college. Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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