During a lunch break back in 2013, Justin Michael of St. Cloud stopped in a grocery store where he saw a man punching a woman in the head and holding her up against the wall by her neck. He tore the man off and called the police.
The woman would later decline to press charges because she needed her husband's financial support. "I can barely afford to keep my kids in diapers," she told Michael.
Diapers, Michael quickly discovered, were not cheap. Disposable diapers can cost $70-$80 for one child’s monthly supply — six percent of the income for a parent working minimum wage. When daycares require diapers as a prerequisite for enrollment, the opportunity cost for that parent to go to school or go to work climbs even higher.
This winter, Michael enlisted 25 of his personal friends and set a goal to collect 100,000 diapers, valued at $20,000. They called it Operation Baby New Year.
St. Cloud jumped on board. Tattoo shops, churches, the legal aid office, and local food market set up donation boxes in their lobbies. Big Apple Bagel offered a free sandwich and coffee in return for a package of diapers. Comics held an impromptu open mic night at a local bar where donors received a premium drink. Beaver Island Brewing Co. threw a massive one-night fundraiser called Diapers for Pints, which raised 14,000 diapers alone.
“People would walk in with a box of diapers and they would get applauded and cheered at, and one of the staff there would grab the box and they’d get their pint of beer, whatever they wanted,” says volunteer Brianna Skalsky. “It was beautiful. We started building a wall of diapers within minutes of them opening.”
There were also those who were reluctant to donate because of the charity organizations listed as beneficiaries: Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities among them. In a city that has gained a reputation for much wrangling over its recent inflow of Somali refugees, some potential donors declined to give because they knew the diapers were bound for Somali or Muslim babies. They contended that refugees were already getting too much assistance.
Skalsky had to explain that food stamps don’t pay for diapers, and that the Lutheran Social Services crisis nursery can’t always use grant funding for them either.
Some could be swayed.
“Unfortunately the racial tensions here are a very real thing, but this crosses those barriers,” Skalsky says. “Explaining things to people, it really opened them up. We’ve been changing things in our own hearts in other people’s hearts.”
By Operation Baby New Year’s deadline Sunday night, it had swept up a triumphant 104,527 diapers.