Washington Heights

Neighbors create a solution for families who need diapers in Washington Heights and beyond

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

A drive through his old neighborhood prompted Dr. Michael Glass to start a program that has been the catalyst for a lot of positive activity at Parkway Manor in Washington Heights.

“It started with a drive through the neighborhood and noticing a building right in the middle of Parkway Manor that was basically empty,” says Glass, a Battle Creek dentist. “It did have a computer lab, but beyond that, it was not being used at all. It really caught my attention because I thought it was a wonderful location and I could see the potential for opportunities to utilize it in a way that would help the community.”

More than 276 residents live in the 98 apartments of the complex that received a major boost in the late 1970’s from the late Dorothy Young, a housing inspector with the City of Battle Creek. She spent years trying to improve housing conditions in Battle Creek and is credited with turning the Parkway Manor apartments into a place fit for all and working directly with low-income families to give them the housing they needed.

After recognizing the possibilities for the underused building, Glass connected with residents to see what they saw as their biggest needs and he was surprised by the answer he got.

“I had an idea in my head,” he says. “I thought about bringing in food. I went door-to-door and asked residents what they needed. The common theme was diapers. So, instead of doing what I thought they needed, I did what they wanted. 

"With all of the assistance some of these residents get, diapers aren’t covered. For many people, they have to decide between buying food, paying bills, or buying diapers. I knew there were kids who were supposed to be in diapers that didn’t have one on or were wearing one on that was close to exploding. Once that was revealed to me, I could see the need clear as day.”

Using his own money, Glass began a monthly diaper distribution -- The Battle Creek Diaper Network -- that provided diapers and diaper wipes to anyone in need, no questions asked. 

The need for diapers

An average monthly supply of diapers costs approximately $80 according to the National Diaper Bank Network. Officials with the NBDN say that the only federal assistance program that can be used for diapers is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF has to cover many other expenses, including heat, electric and water bills, rent, clothing, transportation, and other basic needs.

And while having access to an ample supply of diapers may not seem like it has much to do with a child’s overall early developmental success, it does, according to the NDBN.

“Keeping infants and toddlers clean, dry, and healthy is key to building a solid foundation for all children to reach their full potential,” NDBN officials say. “Children in low-income families are at greatest risk of suffering the effects of diaper need because many families can't afford diapers. Most working parents rely on child care. Most child care facilities require parents to provide diapers for their child. Without child care, parents can't work or attend school.”

Denise Rucker, Dr. Mike Glass, and Aliyah work together during a recent diaper disribution at Parkway Manor. Photo by Susan Andress. This is what prompted Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to introduce the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act of 2017. The proposed legislation, which now is in committee, would make available federal grant funds for states to create, administer and evaluate innovative programs that provide access to one of the most basic needs of every infant and toddler--clean diapers.

“Some people are fortunate enough be able to pay for diapers and childcare and pay their house or car note,” says Denise Rucker, a program coordinator with BC Pulse and the diaper program. “Sometimes if you’ve never had that struggle, it’s hard to put yourself in those shoes.”

Glass says he thinks there are misperceptions about why people rely on a diaper distribution program. People mistakenly believe these parents are unable to manage money or that they have the wrong priorities. “Those above that cost of living threshold don’t recognize the pressures being experienced by those living below that level,” he says.

The program is open to anyone, not just Parkway Manor or city residents, and Layne says they’ve served people from Kalamazoo and Athens.

“We wanted to make sure we have barrier-free access for families,” Layne says. “We ask for a name and where they live, but they don’t have to provide that. To qualify you just have to have the desire to have a baby who’s clean and dry.”

Once word got out that Glass was donating diapers, his patients, community residents, and businesses and organizations, including the Southwest Michigan Dental Association, got behind the program. Glass says he was spending close to $750 each month. Now so many people are willing to help that he hasn’t had to buy diapers and wipes out of his own pocket for more than a year. 

Rucker, a Washington Heights resident, began volunteering with the diaper distribution program in 2016 at a point when she was not working. Her first interaction with Glass came about when she decided to host a Halloween party at Parkway Manor before she knew of his involvement in the diaper distribution program.

“One of my friends threw one a couple of years prior and it was outside and it was fun, but we froze to death because it was so cold,” Rucker says. “I wanted to do something that was inside so we wouldn’t have to be cold. I reached out to Dr. Glass’ assistant to see if he or his office willing would be willing to come out to the event and pass out healthy snacks and treats and free toothbrushes.

“We ended up meeting and I found out what he was doing with diapers.” By the time 2017 rolled around Rucker had started working a little bit more with the program, started finding donors, and was writing grant proposals.

“I was trying to free up his (Dr. Glass’) pockets,” Rucker says. Donations began coming in from nonprofits such as the Battle Creek Community Foundation and the local Women of Impact giving group as well as the local KIA dealership, she says.

Kathy Szenda Wilson, executive director of BC Pulse, helps at a recent diaper distribution. Photo by Susan Andress At the beginning of the year, Rucker says, the Parkway Manor program was serving anywhere from 30 to 50 families. The number of families coming in to get the free diapers and wipes has increased every month since the program started. In September, 86 families were served and 133 packages of diapers and 86 packages of wipes were distributed says Angie Layne, a BC Pulse project coordinator. 

“When June hit that increased to between 50 and 90 people. We want to make sure we keep up with ones that are repeats and people moving in,” Layne says. 

As Rucker’s volunteer role expanded to include more of the program’s administrative work, she was hired in September by BC Pulse. Layne says the growth of the program was one of the reasons Rucker was hired.

“We needed to find a place for this position because of the increasing access for our Parkway Manor and Washington Heights-specific residents,” Layne says.  “Our families get it and the organizations engaged with our work get it and that’s why it continues to grow.”

The resources BC Pulse provides for the diaper bank are among many programs it offers. The organization’s major focus is ensuring that the community is doing everything possible to ensure that each child has equal opportunity to experience quality early learning, health, economic security, safety and nurturing care.

“The biggest charge at BC Pulse is increasing access to the early childhood system for underserved residents and improving the quality of supports that are available,” says Layne. 

“We provide data collection and we work with action teams and work to make sure children are healthy and developmentally on the right trajectory," Layne says. "Our quality team makes sure those transitions are there from pre-school to Kindergarten. We also have a public-will building team and work with other organizations in the community on an aligned messaging around early childhood experiences.”

Dr. Michael Glass talks to the young helpers who are working for a merit badge at a recent diaper distribution. Photo by Susan Andress.BC Pulse is focusing on Parkway Manor because of its partnership with Dr. Glass and the Battle Creek Housing Commission, said Kathy Szenda Wilson, executive director of BC Pulse. 

“BC Pulse partners with anyone interested in supporting families with young children, including Michigan Works, the WIC program, the Boy Scouts, Early Childhood Connections, the Department of Health and Human Services, Centering Parenting, and Willard Library,” Szenda Wilson says.

Layne says every effort is being made to get these partners into Parkway Manor. 

As these partnerships continue to grow, Glass’ vision of the diaper program creating additional activity at Parkway Manor is coming to fruition. Szenda Wilson credits the activity surrounding that program as the catalyst for monthly free community dinners for residents, a food pantry, fitness classes, reading classes, and a new program for teenage girls called “Her Name is Hope” which had its first meeting Oct. 20.

She says organizations that can provide resources have said in the past that it is a challenge for them to connect with the people who need their help. The diaper program gives them the opportunity to connect and make their services available.

“It’s starting with the diapers, but we want to get as many resources there (into Parkway Manor) as we can,” Layne says.

And the potential for the future is encouraging. Available resources may include a laundry facility, or more recreational opportunities or around-the-clock childcare for parents who work a second or third shift, Rucker says.

“If you’re already struggling with transportation and getting your child to a childcare facility, that could be another issue,” she says. “It’s all about what we can do to make your community better. We want people to have a community they can be proud of.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.