PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Students work in a computer class at the Women and Children’s Center of the Sierra.

Maria was great at the play part of being a teenager, not so much with the student part. She didn’t graduate from high school.

“At the time, I just didn’t want to study,” she now says. “I was being a teenager. I was just doing things, and going with my friends, and I didn’t think education was important. So I stopped going to school.”

She was 16. Her brother got her a job at a Taco Bell, where she worked for two years. She got married and had children. As she and her husband provided for those children, the value of education began to make itself more apparent. She wanted to start school again, but now it was more difficult.

“It was harder for me to go back because of the day care,” she said.

She worked for several years, both as a mother and outside the home. Child care was always a stumbling block, but she kept yearning for a general equivalency diploma (GED), sometimes also called general educational development, so she could attend cosmetology school.

Then she heard about the Women and Children’s Center of the Sierra. The Center helps young parents get their GEDs while providing child care and associated assistance. In her mid-20s, she started taking classes. Six months ago, she took her GED and also received computer training. The cost for cosmetology school is stiff, but she’s a little closer now.

Center director Pam Russell says Maria is the kind of person who, when confronted by obstacles, will find a way around them. The Center has seen women like Maria succeed. Since September, 11 young women have received GEDs through the Center. Ten of them now have jobs.

It’s just the kind of program that left and right can agree on as a way of breaking cycles of poverty. That’s why it’s frustrating for Russell that the program is getting bogged down in a rather ordinary problem: Diapers.

The Center has provided diapers for the students. It’s one of the things that make the program work, diapers being a huge cost.

“A child in its first year will use about 2,700 diapers,” Russell said. That number goes down a bit in subsequent years, but it’s a big ticket item through several years.

Previously, the Center was able to continue helping recent graduates of its classes until they got back on their feet.

As her clients struggle to get their lives together, Pam Russell struggles to hold the program together.

“What we used to be able to do is extend [diapers] to people that were really trying and just needed a couple of months or someone who’s [just] gotten a job … we can’t do that any more because we just don’t have the diapers.”

But the current students must come first, Russell said, and the diapers actually help keep them in classes.

“Women that come in to take our classes—and that runs from our computer classes, our high school equivalency prep, and English as a second language classes—all qualify for weekly diapers if they come in to class,” Russell said. “This is a huge help, because, as Maria just told you, if you’re not working because you’re moving forward and going to class, having that boost with diapers really, really helps. And it’s a good incentive.”

Health peril

When Russell took over as director, it wasn’t a problem. Some large businesses were providing regular contributions of enough diapers. But as the economy allegedly improved, “their corporate policies have changed and so now we no longer get donated diapers. We get a few.” The Center had to start buying more and more diapers as time went on. Also as the economy improved and more jobs became available, more young people with children wanted to get better jobs and so want their GEDs. The number of students grew. In January 2013, the Center provided 6,500 diapers. In January 2014 it was 17,000.

“The number of women seeking our services has grown monumentally, as well,” Russell said.

Community organizations and churches have occasionally done “diaper drives” for the Center, but those are usually supplementary or stopgap solutions.

Saying no to students needing diapers sets in motion very difficult outcomes, Russell said.

“If a mom can’t afford diapers … there’s a huge health risk to children, because moms will have to clean out a diaper and re-use it, which can lead to hideous diaper rash, urinary tract infections, and babies that are just cranky and unhappy and not well and that prevents them from thriving.”

That’s not the only consequence.

“Additionally, the emotional impact on the moms is incredibly tough,” Russell said somberly. “Moms that come to us for services are going to classes and when you talk to them, they’re doing it for their kids. They want to get out of poverty for their kids. They want to be able to provide for the kids. And if you can’t provide diapers for your kids, that takes an awful toll because you want to be a good mom.”

So Russell is spending an absurd amount of time not on curriculum or fund raising for equipment but on acquiring diapers. It’s not the kind of task she expected to dominate her days when she took the position, but lack of enough diapers is threatening to eat the Center’s mission alive.

“Right now we are paying 18.3 cents a diaper, which is the next to lowest we’ve found,” Russell said.

One lower-priced diaper caused a bunch of rashes, so the Center moved up to a better grade.

“And that comes to between $3,000 and $3,500 a month,” she added.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...