Driving past Jackson Barracks in the Lower Ninth Ward, few people would realize that tucked within this Louisiana National Guard military base is a warm, colorful haven for the children of our local military members.  While the Giggles Child Development Center in the Barracks might be out of sight for a casual drive by, it is a refuge for many families seeking support as they prepare for, return from, or currently serve in active duty military deployment overseas.  Easing these families in difficult transitions to, on and from the battlefield takes a village, and the Junior League of New Orleans is honored to play a part by providing diapers to the Giggles Center via our Diaper Bank.

Witnessing this impact firsthand, JLNO President Kristen Koppel and Communications Council Director Anna Dearmon Kornick joined the Giggles Center’s Directress, retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Melanie Pichon-Smith, and the families of currently enrolled children on November 16, for a special holiday meal.  While the turkey, cranberry sauce and dressing provided a special treat for all, the monthly donation of diapers to the Giggles Center through JLNO’s partnership with Agenda for Children is an ongoing reason to give thanks.  With many of the children having a mother or father serving oversees, there are numerous parents and caregivers raising children alone: providing diapers to these families eases that burden of care.  According to Melanie, though this act may seem simple, “What y’all do is huge.”

This contribution to families across the Greater New Orleans area didn’t occur overnight, however.  As former JLNO President Maria Pardo Huete recalls, in 2013-14 JLNO engaged in a strategic planning process under the leadership of then-President Jeanne Boughton.  Through this intense strategy development, Maria and other JLNO leaders researched and considered initiatives that would both advance the wellbeing of women, while also allow the 85% of full-time working members to actively engage around their schedules.  As Maria recalls after one particularly long planning session, “I went home and blearily stared at my computer screen and ran across an article on the negative effects on women and babies that diaper need causes…The article mentioned diaper banks as a way to help babies and their mothers.”

The intrinsic links between diapers, poverty and supporting women struck Maria and she quickly shared the concept with Jeanne and Jessie Haynes, then-Chair of the Project Development Committee.  From there, Jessie took a deep dive into the research and formed the diaper bank concept, proposing it as a project at the end of 2014.  Maria and Mary Beth Green then stepped in to jointly chair the first Diaper Bank Committee.  As Maria said, “I think that the process says a lot about having the vision to create something, the open mindedness to pursue all ideas and the courage to take a risk. If at any point along that trajectory one of these women had said “this won’t work” or “members will never support it” we would not have a diaper bank. That, in a nutshell, was its genesis.”

The vision shared by Jeanne, Maria, Jessie and Mary Beth several years ago has since manifested into a community-wide initiative with impacts and benefits spreading across the Gulf Coast.  Between donations to the greater New Orleans community, as well as an extraordinary disaster relief response from Texas to Florida to Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, JLNO has collected and dispersed 185,000 diapers, 166,000 baby wipes, and 49,000 feminine products since establishing the Diaper Bank.

This impressive momentum received a tremendous boost this past fall, when the new JLNO Diaper Bank warehouse was formally unveiled to the public at the September 26 grand opening. Continuing to build on JLNO’s mission of advancing the wellbeing of women, the new phase of growth significantly expands the potential for the Diaper Bank, while remaining true to the original intent and vision.  Community Council Director Holly Paczak was quick to commend the work of past JLNO and Diaper Bank leaders, saying “I just picked up where a lot of people left off.” According to Holly, the commitment and leadership of the JLNO Board of Directors was the true driving force behind this new chapter of Diaper Bank access.

Through the new facility, JLNO will be able to store, sort and distribute more diapers than ever before.  As Holly said, “I never knew how important a loading dock was!”  Because the warehouse is equipped to receive larger shipments from 18-wheelers, JLNO is able to not only receive more donated products, but also buy more diapers in greater bulk quantities. This new facility allows JLNO to purchase diapers for 13-15 cents each, compared to 35 cents each—a great cost-savings for donation sponsored purchases.  Holly says, “The physical space means we can do more—take more in, distribute more, give our volunteers more meaningful experiences—and hopefully expand to feminine products and adult care as well.”  

In addition to supporting JLNO’s current and future partnerships and disaster response efforts—and expanding the potential products the Diaper Bank might one day collect—this new location will be especially critical for serving the needs of families like those at the Giggles Child Development Center at Jackson Barracks. Thanks to JLNO’s new partnership with Agenda for Children, a 31-year-old non-profit organization providing childcare support and services in Louisiana, children at eight daycares across the New Orleans area, including the Giggles Center, will be provided diapers from the JLNO bank.  As JLNO President-Elect Alice Glenn stated about both the new location and partnership, “Our hope is that this is a starting point to meet a community need.”

Continuing to advance the Diaper Bank through great leadership and community collaboration, President Kristen Koppel and her husband, Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) member, Woody Koppel, were able to leverage their collective networks to connect the Diaper Bank with the Agenda for Children preschools.  Recognizing that many daycares require families to provide children with diapers when being dropped off for daycare, and also realizing that diapers can’t be bought with a Louisiana Electronic Benefits card with funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Woody and Kristen were able to bridge their work to address a serious community barrier.  As Woody said, “There is an old adage that diapers and politicians have a lot in common—but this time it’s different!”
Sean Perkins, Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives at OPSB, said, “Mr. Koppel knew there were access issues when diapers and wipes were considered luxury items.  For a low-income family, that’s the problem.” OPSB Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr. concurs, recalling that when Woody mentioned the idea of partnering with the Diaper Bank, the concept took off quickly.  From there, Sean and Kristen were able to connect with Agenda for Children and new channels for immediate distribution and impact were formed.  Yet, according to Henderson, the work is just beginning and far from over: “We know other daycare programs in metropolitan New Orleans that are supporting families in need—until we reach all of them our work isn’t done.”

Between the leadership of JLNO and the OPSB, broader impact seems within reach. As Woody said, “We are a board of action and figure out how to make connections and get things done.”  Woody also noted that the Diaper Bank partnership is an easy initiative for everyone—from community members to elected officials—to support, saying, “It’s something everyone can get behind.  When you work with the Junior League Diaper Bank, you know that diaper is going to a bottom in need.”

This is certainly the case for the parents, caregivers and children of the Giggles Child Development Center.  With the holidays posing a particularly challenging time of year for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and for families whose loved ones are still overseas, Melanie reports that JLNO’s Diaper Bank contributions make the parents feel their children are not forgotten. As many service men and women face ongoing financial strains both when at home and while on deployment, the financial and emotional relief provided through these monthly contributions are deeply appreciated.  Melanie stated, “The diapers you provide for [the parents] makes them feel so appreciated, and it’s a huge relief to the mothers to be in combat and not have to worry about diapers and pull ups!”