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An entrepreneur, taking on a hidden need – the diaper gap

diaper warehouse Executive director Liz Sutherlin in the Happy Bottoms warehouse, which houses hundreds of thousands of diapers. (Photo by Bridgit Bowden/ Flatland)
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A child in diapers uses an estimated 6 to 10 diapers per day. That means the average family spends $18 per week or $936 per year on diapers for each child. The costs add up quickly. And because of this, the National Diaper Bank Network estimates that one in three moms in the United States can’t afford to buy the diapers their kids need.

That’s where Happy Bottoms, Kansas City’s diaper bank, comes in. Founded in in 2010, the organization works like a food bank, but deals exclusively in diapers and pull-ups. It also looks like a food bank, with a huge warehouse and space for volunteers to wrap and pack items.

Liz Sutherlin is the organization’s executive director. On a recent visit to Happy Bottoms, she said diaper need is something a lot of people just don’t know about. But, because you can’t buy diapers with SNAP (food stamps) or WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) money, it’s an essential item low-income parents struggle to afford.

“I just think it’s one of those things that people take for granted,” she said. “You just can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t have diapers for a baby. It’s unfathomable.”

Sutherlin said Happy Bottoms uses poverty data to estimate that there are about 17,000 kids in the Kansas City area that are of diaper age and need diapers. While her organization is attempting to close that gap, Sutherlin says they only just scratch the surface of the greater need.

“In 2014, we had a phenomenal year, but we only provided diapers to 5,400 children,” Sutherlin said. “So, of the 17,000, we barely got to a third. The need is far greater than our ability to cover it.”

The diapers are distributed through Happy Bottoms’ partner organizations throughout the six counties surrounding Kansas City. The organization is able to efficiently provide the exact number of diapers each partner needs by using a database system.

“I just think it’s one of those things that people take for granted,” Sutherlin said. “You just can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t have diapers for a baby. It’s unfathomable.”

Here’s how it works: each partner organization fills out demographic information on each child, including that child’s diaper size. Happy Bottoms then aggregates that data into reports for each, and volunteers wrap and pack the exact number of diapers each agency needs. It takes between 40 and 50 volunteers each week to finish all the work.

Giving to Happy Bottoms

As Happy Bottoms continues to grow, the organization is looking for volunteers, corporate sponsors and donations. Sutherlin said a monetary donation can actually go farther than a diaper donation.  

“We buy diapers so much cheaper,” she said. That’s because Happy Bottoms is part of the National Diaper Bank Network, and they can acquire huge quantities of diapers for a relatively low cost.

But, Happy Bottoms will accept diaper donations as well. She said families with children in diapers often have unused diapers at home.

“Babies never grow out of diapers at the end of a pack,” she said. “There’s always half a pack laying around the house that’s the wrong size. We want those.”

“As entrepreneurial as anyone else”

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, Sutherlin presented Happy Bottoms at 1 Million Cups Kansas City, a weekly event where entrepreneurs get together to share ideas about their companies. She said organizations like Happy Bottoms don’t get opportunities like that very often.

“I wanted to make sure everyone in that audience knew what Happy Bottoms is about and knew that we are a business: We are as entrepreneurial as anyone else in that room,” she said. “We don’t make money for ourselves doing this, but we are hoping to have a legacy organization for our community.”

Sutherlin approached this audience with a list of ways they might be able to help. She’s looking for a new executive director, a better way to get the message out through sponsors and volunteers, and someone to help develop an electronic database with a sign-in for partner agencies. She said she got a lot of good ideas and feedback from the audience.

“It’s amazing what you get when someone comes and looks at your operation with different eyes,” she said.

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