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Teenager organizes diaper drives for low-income families

By Brenda Velasco

To provide diapers for babies from low-income or homeless families, Spokane Valley teen Jesse Sheldon is organizing diaper drives and hopes to start a nonprofit organization.

Jesse Sheldon
Jesse Sheldon's diaper drive may become a nonprofit center.

The Central Valley High School freshman was inspired to start the project by an article last spring in Time mazagine about a Connecticut social worker, Joanne Goldblum, who researched risks for babies who don’t have access to clean diapers.  She told of walking into a restroom and seeing a poor woman clean a soiled diaper and put it back on her child.

“I was disturbed when I read that,” said Jesse, 15.  “I knew if it was happening in Connecticut it was likely happening in Spokane.  Every baby has a right to clean, dry diapers.”  

He was also displeased to learn most day-care centers require families to provide their own diapers.

 “If a family can’t afford diapers then the baby can’t attend daycare and the parents may not be able to go to work or school,” he said.

Jesse decided to do what Joanne had done.  She started a diaper drive to help homeless and low-income families with babies.  He did research and found that the Spokane area does not have a central diaper bank that serves needy families.

“Food banks and community centers have limited resources for diapers, and Catholic Charities has some programs.” he said, “but there is not one main place where families or agencies can access free diapers all the time, and  most local resources give only 10 diapers a month.

“I know WIC and food stamp programs don’t cover diapers, which can cost $70 to $100 or more a month depending on how many children a family has.” Jesse said. 

He first named his project: Spokane Diaper Drive, but recently changed it to Inland Northwest Baby to include the region.  With a name and a vision, he had to find how to make it happen.

“I approached my church,” said Jesse, who attends Valley Bible Church in Spokane Valley.  “I told them my idea, and my youth pastor, Nick Morgan, supported me and helped me start it.”

During summer 2009, Jesse set up barrels, fliers and messages to inspire his church, family and friends to donate diapers. He told them that babies suffer when their parents can’t afford diapers.

“There are health risks,” said Jesse, who has given up his allowance to buy diapers.

“I felt God was leading me down this path,” he said.

His family encouraged him to pursue it, helping as they could.

“When he first told me his plan. I wondered if it was a fleeting idea or if it would become a passion,” said Julie Sheldon, his mother.

From the summer church diaper drive and donations of family and friends, Jesse collected 3,500 diapers and training pants.  He donated them to St. Ann’s Children and Family Center and St. Margaret’s Shelter to distribute.

“I met some families who benefited, and they shared with me the struggles they’ve been through and how grateful they were for the diapers,” Jesse said.

The first drop off in July was featured in a two-minute segment on KSPS-TV’s Kid’s Incorporated, which showcases teens who make a difference.

“Words can’t describe the feeling I had about delivering the diapers.  So many babies are benefiting,” he said.  “I am doing something that matters.  It went from a good idea to, wow, I really did it!  I made it happen and am doing something that is going to help many people.”

Jesse’s mother agrees and is inspired by his perseverance.

“I am blessed to have a son with a servant’s heart,” Julie said. “I’m so proud of him. He was driven to do this.  It was all him.”

Jesse hopes to expand the diaper drive and set up collection barrels in other area churches and locations.  He plans to have another drop off at St. Anne’s soon.

This month, he will meet with Ben Small, superintendent for the Central Valley School District to discuss ways to involve other schools in the diaper drives.

“My plan is to have a ‘stuff the bus’ diaper project this spring and make it a district-wide event,” said Jesse.  “I envision a head-to-head competition with my school and University High School to see who can collect the most diapers.  It would inspire students to be involved.  I want my classmates to know that anyone can make a difference in their community.”

 Jesse, who serves on the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council and is active in the Central Valley High School band, said his teachers and classmates support the drive.

“My teachers encourage me and help me find donations,” he said.  “I sometimes get odd looks from some friends, especially when I show them my business card with a baby on it, but many are impressed and know how important this is.”

Jesse plans to start a local nonprofit organization and open a Spokane diaper bank that would be accessible to families in need and charitable agencies.  He is working to find funding and applying for grants.  He also is establishing a board of directors that will include four adults.

“I want to work with adults who have a passion to help teens,” Jesse said.  “Networking is key.   I hope people who support it will open doors so it can progress.”  

He also plans to have a youth advisory board and volunteers to organize diaper drives, and to collect and distribute the diapers. 

Jesse sent an email to Joanne in Connecticut thanking her for inspiring him and motivating him to pursue this project. “She wrote me, and we have been in touch ever since,” he said.

In January, Jesse and his mother met Joanne in Seattle, when she was a guest at a fund raiser for West Side Baby, a nonprofit that provides diapers, hygiene products, toys and clothes.

“When she first saw me, we made eye contact and she immediately knew who I was,” he said.  “She gave me hug and told me she couldn’t believe how her story touched someone on the other side of the country.”

Jesse also met the director of West Side Baby and saw their facility, which has served more than 30,000 children since 2001.  He gained ideas and wants to use it as a model. 

Balancing his project, high school studies and extracurricular activities is not easy, but he is committed to each.

“I’m making it work,” said Jesse, who wants to study business administration.  “I’m developing a budget and timeline for long term to expand beyond Spokane to neighboring counties.”

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