Poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services. ~World Summit on Social Development, 1995
Recently, I was asked by a church member, “What do diapers have to do with getting someone out of poverty?” I looked at her and smiled. Anyone who has had a child knows that diapers are one of the costliest items we buy as parents. I celebrated the day when my daughter, at 22-months-old, asked for a “potty.” I felt as if I had just won the lottery!
How can diapers or food pantries or clothing closets address poverty, or for that matter, lead to building community in our neighborhoods and towns? Well, psychologist, Abraham Maslow had an idea. He proposed that when people have their basic human needs met, they are able to develop “higher order” life skills like self-esteem, a work ethic, and morality. In essence, if people can eat healthily, have transportation, and live safely, then they are more likely to participate in activities that build community.
If a family doesn’t have healthy food or fresh drinking water, will children be ready for learning at school? If a single parent doesn’t have reliable transportation, will she get to work every day? If a senior adult is using his social security check to cover rent, will he be able to afford medical costs outside of routine care? If a mother has to choose between food and diapers, will that lead to stress and anxiety that impact her parenting?
In working with churches and communities, I have found that we forget the first layers of Maslow’s hierarchy. Instead, we want to start with the higher order skills, like education, parenting classes, or employment. As a result, we get frustrated when people show up inconsistently or don’t take advantage of what our program has to offer. What we forget is that sometimes, the participants are merely trying to meet their basic human needs which in turn becomes a barrier to accessing our services. Rather than evaluate our program model, however, we blame the participants, their life circumstances, or even poverty itself.
Eighteen months ago, our organization, LightShare, started a program called FamilyShare. It was a model I developed to address rural poverty through community building. The premise of FamilyShare is this: If we can meet families’ basic human needs first, then they will be better prepared to work on higher education, become better parents, and develop their self-esteem.
The first four-month session, we only had two mothers. I was a bit disappointed initially, but then I found it to be a gift. It gave the three of us the opportunity to work on which aspects of poverty were challenging their families. We set short-term goals and life goals. Our volunteers and our program participants gathered donations of food, diapers, and clothing so families didn’t have to stress over basic items. Anxiety decreased and parenting skills improved.
By the next session, our numbers increased a bit, and the initial two mothers refused to graduate. The first year of FamilyShare not only served as an opportunity to work on parenting , but also to address issues like healthy nutrition on a budget, accessing family services in the community, and creating safe home environments for children. FamilyShare provided transportation and child care so that families could attend regularly. All in all, the program became a safety net, not a crutch, for families living in rural poverty.
The result of meeting basic human needs the first year? Two mothers left the program to get full time jobs. One mother who has a child with disabilities accessed 2 additional community programs. One mother began encouraging the father to come, and now they are parenting as a team. One mother is now volunteering with a church and giving back of herself to the community that helped her.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit and observe as two of our women met with the Adult Educator from the local Literacy Council. As they asked their questions about how to attain their GED, I marveled at how far they had come in such a short period of time. Both women were born and raised in poverty. Both women have had very challenging life experiences. In spite of all that, each woman has taken more than 20 years of poverty and said, “Enough!” in a matter of 18 months time.
So how can diapers address poverty or build community? They remind us of what people need for survival and how poverty children before education, parenting, and employment become factors. We need to readjust our perspective, take a new approach. We must widen our spectrum of services or partner with others to meet those basic human needs. In doing so, we open the door to opportunity for personal, professional, and spiritual growth. In other words, we change the community, one diaper at a time.