“Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”–1 Corinthians 16: 13-14
Since 2018 The Maker’s Place of Trenton has been bridging gaps and planting seeds of hope throughout the city by providing families in need with diapers and other supplies to keep their children safe, healthy and dry. As of early November, they had distributed more than 80,000 diapers since the pandemic’s inception. When they are not collecting, packing and distributing diapers and other baby supplies to those in need to places like the Trenton Housing Authority, the team at this GNJ Hope Center is distributing blessing bags and care boxes, registering people to vote, cutting hair for free and celebrating children’s birthdays.
“Today is all we have to work for a better tomorrow,” said Rev. Michael Reed who leads the effort and is the proud father of a baby in diapers. “God is a maker, and you’re made in God’s image.”
But the pandemic has forced The Maker’s Place to rethink how they do what they do.
“COVID threw our model into a tailspin, but some ingenuity from some amazing people and a little humility has worked out well for us,” said Reed.
Based on a recent survey, 90 percent of their clients have either lost a job or income since the pandemic began, resulting in many families having to meet another need over buying diapers for their families.
“Every baby deserves a first birthday. Diapers bring human dignity,” Reed said. “By alleviating this burden, we’re hoping to reduce infant mortality and build an abundant community for all God’s children.”
And it’s working. Data from the survey showed that half of their clients feel like they are better parents because of the diaper donations.
In addition to hosting five giveaway sites, The Maker’s Place “virtual volunteers” help over 150 families each month schedule appointments to pick up diapers at grab-and-go locations across the city.
The business model has needed to be flexible, because no one client is the same. Rationing diapers or cutting costs in other areas like food or childcare have become a way of life for many as this pandemic weighs heavily on families whose budgets were already tight or opens up new challenges for families who never had to worry.
Camila Vargas has two sets of twins, all in diapers, in part due to medical complications in one set.
“Diaper depot [the name given to the drop-off locations] is a project that really helped me in very hard moments. With four kids in diapers last year, facing a couple evictions, I faced very hard times. I will never forget what they did for me,” said Vargas who during a recent trip to the emergency room for her daughter meant only getting two doses of antibiotics because she couldn’t afford more without health insurance.
In spite of the adversity, Vargas exudes courage and hope. She often speaks of a Spanish idiom she strives to live every day, “de los cobardes nunca se ha escrito nada” that roughly translates to “no one writes the history of cowards.”
Vargas embraces all that she is given as she works hard to shape a brighter future for her children. Last week, this 27-year-old mother of five became a U.S. citizen.
Helping in part to make that a reality are the many donations from United Methodist Churches , like the UMC at Milltown, Pearson Memorial UMC and First UMC of Moorestown who each month send diapers, baby wipes and other items. The Maker’s Place also accept donations as part of fundraisers organized by local churches like Browns Mills UMC and its Little Lambs Preschool.
“Our goal is to offer radical hospitality,” said Reed. “We need to build bridges that cross race and class, be where our clients are.” Although the pandemic has curtailed their efforts to build a stronger faith community, board member and volunteer Lori Pantaleo said she feels like she’s making a better connection with people as the strict social distancing parameters have compelled volunteers to envision new ways to interact.
“We used to create community with areas where people could meet and talk, but that is no longer possible. Now I really get to know their names and their stories,” said Pantaleo who uses her fluency in Spanish and experience as a Spanish teacher for many years to manage calls from the many Spanish-speaking clients.
“These people are the most resilient, faithful and grateful people,” she said.
One of them is Maria, the mother of a toddler who likes to laugh, eat chips and play outside. Shortly after his first birthday, her son Jose was in two full-leg casts all the way to the hip after fracturing both his legs. Jose has brittle bone disease, so every day is a potential challenge.
“Normally, we only provide one size diapers to families, but in this case, the boy needed one size for the area between his legs, and a larger size to go over the cast that basically came up to his waist,” said Pantaleo. “We were able to accommodate the family and get the diapers to them without putting them on the waiting list.”
Margarita, a mild-mannered Latina woman, is the mother of 14-year-old Oscar whose developmental disabilities require him to wear diapers.
“He is the size of a 14-year-old, and requires adult diapers, which is something we hadn’t really focused on,” said Pantaleo, who added that with money donated by supporters, they were able to purchase adult diapers and have them in stock for future situations such as these.
“Diapers are always expensive, but adult diapers can run up to $25 for a pack of 12. As you can imagine, this is a tremendous financial burden for a low-income family.”
Because of the pandemic, Juan from Lawrenceville had to ask for assistance when a sudden job loss drastically changed finances for him and his family. He turned to The Maker’s Place for help.
Pantaleo said she packed up her car and delivered him a supply of diapers that day.
The Maker’s Place team, which also includes Trenton native, Assistant Director Callie Crowder, and Community Care Coordinator Rev. Susan Victor, imagines a brighter future for its community and the return of valuable services they provided before the pandemic like a clothing swap. They also look forward to expanding their services by offering art, music, crafting and parenting classes.
“Imagination is a synonym for faith,” said Reed.
To find out more about the organization and its upcoming December diaper drive, visit its website.