Megan Fischer: Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank
I met Megan Fischer a few years ago, while she was working at an educational publishing company. She was smart and capable and sometimes had pink hair – the kind of person you suspect has interesting things ahead. When Megan started talking about a diaper bank, a term I’d never heard before, I stopped and listened. From her, I learned that diaper banks help provide diapers, a necessity for children that is not covered by any government program like food stamps or WIC. Health clinics and food banks aren’t regular sources of diapers either, so parents in need have no reliable way to get them if they’re short on cash.
Megan was working full-time, with two young kids, when she formed a nonprofit she called Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank. After two and a half years of storing diapers in her basement and reaching out to local agencies, Sweet Cheeks grew to the point that Megan left her job to run Sweet Cheeks full time.The organization currently distributes 50,000-plus diapers each month to 19 partner agencies.
We talked at the Saint Anthony Center in Over-the-Rhine where Sweet Cheeks stores, wraps, and distributes diapers to Greater Cincinnati organizations.
So let's start with the origin of Sweet Cheeks. Tell me about where the idea came from for a diaper bank and how you first got the organization started.
In the middle of 2014, I saw this article on the diaper bank out in the Ozarks, and it was actually a cloth diaper bank. I was cloth diapering my son at the time, so I thought, “Oh, this is interesting. I wonder what this is.” And it turned out to be an incredibly sad and depressing article about diaper need and how diapers are not covered by food stamps or WIC or Medicaid or any government assistance. I did not know that. So I was reading about parents having to choose between food and diapers. They were having to keep their baby in a diaper for two days or reuse a disposable diaper, having to cut out the middle and stuff it with paper towels. I was beside myself. I was eight months pregnant at the time with my daughter, and I just kept thinking, "What if I was doing the best that I could and it still wasn't enough?" That sent me down the rabbit hole, and I discovered the National Diaper Bank Network. I knew Cincinnati had the fourth-highest child poverty rate in the country. I figured, "We've got a diaper bank; I need to find it, volunteer, donate." So I'm looking online, and I found nothing. I called 2-1-1 and asked, “Where do you go if you need diapers?” and they were like, “We don't have anything, really.” So this idea started to take shape, but I was so overwhelmed with everything else. I thought, “Someone else will do it; someone else will figure it out.” But a year later, nobody had, and I finally got over myself and my own fears and hesitations and was like, “You know, I’ve got to do something.” And from the second I decided to do it, everything has just fallen in place.
What were some of your fears?
I was worried, you know: "What if I start this and fail? What if I start this and people are depending on me and then I quit because it's not working? What if nobody believes in this idea? What if people don't think I can do it? What if this is just another crazy idea I've had, and everyone's had it with my crazy ideas and there's no support and how am I going to do this on top of a full-time job and two kids?"
As soon as I realized it had nothing to do with me, and I would just be the vehicle to get diapers to babies, that just opened up a whole different thought process. I was making it 100 percent about me and my fears and worries when, you know, if this is supposed to be happening and I'm supposed to be doing it, then I just gotta start taking the first step. And it will fall into place. And that's exactly what happened.
So what were the first few steps you took?
I told my husband – finally – that I had this idea I'd been thinking of for a year. And I told another friend, who I thought would be really receptive, and she was like, "Yes, 100 percent, whatever you need for as long as you need it." And then I called my friend Mike (a graphic designer), and I said, "Ah, so I've got this crazy idea, and I think I'm going to need a logo, one of those tagline things, and a website, maybe. And can you help me or point me in the right direction?" He was like, "I'm on board for free for as long as you need me." And we got to work on creating our brand. I was going through the process of all the paperwork to get us incorporated, and then our nonprofit status, making sure name was reserved. All the legal stuff so that we could start accepting donations and figuring out: How do you actually get diapers out the door? Because there's a little over 300 diaper banks in the country, and the diaper bank network is, I think, 7 years old this year. So the whole movement, all of it, is still relatively new. It's not something where people are like, "Oh yeah, the diaper bank, I know exactly what they do and how they get diapers out the door." That's not what it is. I had to go become part of the network and start having these resources and connections.
And then when we got our first small grant, I bought a plane ticket to Kansas City, and I went and visited Happy Bottoms (an established diaper bank). And they became our mentor diaper bank, so a lot of our early processes, forms, the way we do things, and why, it was all coming from them, so that I knew I had a good solid base of things that were legal and working for another huge diaper bank. And then we could modify as we needed to or as we grew.
You've been working on this for a little more than two years now. How has the organization evolved? How has it grown?
It took us about six months to get all the processes in place. So in April of 2016, our first diapers went out the door – 3,500 diapers. I would say by June we had a wait list already, and we have had a wait list since then. Now we do over 50,000 diapers a month, which is meeting about 7 percent of the need in Greater Cincinnati. This past year, we started getting grants, more corporate sponsors, just getting our name out into the community more, letting people know we exist. We've moved into the Saint Anthony Center. So we have a home that's not my basement or a temporary space while the Saint Anthony Center was being renovated. And we are really becoming leaders in the National Diaper Bank Network, as well. I started to get into advocacy and policy around diaper need and mentoring other diaper banks. Which has been really fun and crazy, because I still feel like I have no clue what's going on. We're all just figuring it out, and then I realize that the big diaper banks feel the same way. It's been pretty cool to have people be like, "Hey, I saw you post this thing on the network forums; can I call you and ask you more about that?" or, "Can I come visit and see how you do things?"
What did you have to learn, big picture, to go from a previous career in publishing to this nonprofit world? What were the big things that you had to tackle?
Everything about nonprofits. I mean, my nonprofit experience was basically, embarrassingly, zero. Even on the volunteer front, because three or four years with small kids and career and everything, it just hadn't been a real priority. So I didn't understand how nonprofits work.
And then, running a business. You know, I've got revenue and expenses, just like any other business, and then I have the added bonus of crazy hoops and regulations to jump through for every penny that I get as a nonprofit.
And the world of human services, social services, government assistance. All of that. I just had no idea. It wasn't until Sweet Cheeks was an entity that I discovered all the other things that aren't covered by food stamps.
And the overwhelming response to our services. We've never gone to an organization and asked them to partner. Everyone has always come to us, and I had no idea the impact our diapers would have. I didn't understand the power of them as an incentive to keep people going to case management and to their social service appointments. I didn't know any of it.
Why did you decide to have the warehouse in Over-the-Rhine?
Well, the opportunity to be here kind of fell into our lap, like most things with Sweet Cheeks. I sent out our first newsletter in spring of 2016, right after we started getting diapers out the door, and I was like – to the 10 people, including myself, on this first email – "We need a warehouse." Someone at one of our partner agencies emailed back and was like, "Hey, you need to call Chris Schuermann. She's with St. Francis Seraph Ministries. They're divvying up space in what's going to become the Saint Anthony Center right now." So I emailed Chris on Monday. We met on Friday. And she's like, "Whatever we can do to help." So we’re here.
I think it's really important to be as much in the community that you're serving. We could find a warehouse out in the suburbs, where a lot of our volunteers are coming from, but I think it sends a bigger and better message that we want to be down here; we're willing to be down here. And we're in a building with other agencies that are serving the same population. And I like being here because when we do get people from the suburbs who are not familiar down here, it's very eye-opening. People come and are like, "Oh, there's like, someone homeless out there," and they're terrified. I'm like, "Yeah, it's a human being. Yeah, they're hungry." We're in a building that is trying to help fix that in every aspect.
Did you anticipate the speed and the level of growth you'd see?
No. I had no idea. The first year I had hoped we could do 5,000 diapers a month. And I just assumed that we would get the diapers we needed through diaper drives. I had no plans to purchase any diapers for years. Years! But because we size-match kids, and then we tripled within two months, we had a wait list all of a sudden. I mean, I knew the statistics, the data, because I went through the census data on the poverty statistics; I knew the numbers. But I did not even remotely understand how that would translate into actual reality. We had to start purchasing diapers in July of the first year. And now we purchase most of the diapers going out, and when we get drives from businesses or schools or churches, that's just icing on the cake, which puts us further ahead for the next month or gives us extra.
The growth numbers ... it's like, a thousand percent growth here, 800 percent growth here. And I'm like, "Is that possible? How is this happening?"
What changed once you moved into that full-time mode of not having the full-time job and being with the diaper bank business all the time?
I think my work-life balance improved, my mental health improved, and our credibility improved. I could say now, "We do have a full-time paid employee that we are paying well." It was huge. People would hear how young our organization is but then realize we're doing this volume of diapers, we have this insane wait-list of agencies that want to work with us, and we're paying a CEO a good salary. And then it is exactly like I thought: If I could run a business during normal business hours, money and opportunities and everything else would come in. That's exactly what happened.
Over the past year it has crept into where I'm back to working 24/7. And there were a couple of weeks, in February and March, where I worked for 15 days straight. I was like, "This is not okay. This is bad" And once I realized that I wasn't setting the boundaries or saying no enough, then it's like reined back in, and now it's better again. But I like working. And I love working on Sweet Cheeks, and it doesn't feel like work. So I have to try very, very hard to make myself stop and to intentionally stop and set that time aside, especially since now I've got a home office, it’s even harder.
What is hard for you right now?
I think as we grow, our physical space; we're going to be here for three years, and we outgrew it before we even moved in. So learning to think creatively about our space here, our storage, our process, operations, how we get diapers in and out and how quickly, has been a challenge because I just don't have experience with warehouse operations, process, that type stuff. And I think still giving up control. Because it is my baby. And as much as I try and be objective and run it as a business and all of that, it's still difficult to give up control, especially in giant pieces to other people.
We’ve also had some really big partnerships and opportunities come to us this year that will be brand new, long-term multi-year relationships. So that's something that we've never done before. The biggest one is the Junior League of Cincinnati. In addition to generous funds over three years, I'll have a committee of probably up to 25 women that are just on standby to help with whatever I need. We've never had that type of volunteer army before. So I'm intimidated and excited and finally allowing myself to see the possibilities and what this could mean for us.
We're also looking into a new program, which will mean we have to modify our mission and vision, which is a scary prospect. Period supplies are not covered by any government assistance, either. It's something I've become very, very, very passionate about and interested in. And for a while I was thinking, "Well, at some point, I might just have to start another organization." But then I discovered there's tons of diaper banks that do feminine supplies, adult incontinence products, in addition to diapers and diapering supplies and all kinds of baby stuff.
It's not a stretch. It's a very common thing that makes sense to go together. And also a thing that is not talked about; people freak out talking about period supplies or the word menstruation. But it fits really well. So the National Diaper Bank Network just launched their alliance for period supplies. They want an organization in Cincinnati because there's nobody doing period supplies here, just like there was nobody doing diapers, and I'll be damned if someone else comes in who isn't a member of the National Bank Network now but will become a member of the alliance for period supplies before me. So I think it's a no-brainer.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
So there's the nonprofit side and then the life side.
The life side is Ashley Rapp, who owns Oliver’s Desserts. We live in the same neighborhood. We went to high school together, and we were in band together, but our school was so large, our band program was so big, that we never spoke in high school. So we connected through the beauty of Facebook, and she bakes; she's the owner of Oliver's Desserts, and I started getting some cakes from her. It turned out to be the best cake I've ever had in my whole entire life. And then as I was seeing her more and more frequently for dessert pickups, I started texting and talking and realized, "Oh my gosh, we have so much in common." And I was a cheerleader for her as she quit her full-time job to pursue Oliver's full time. Now she's opening a storefront. She's always like, "What can we do, through Oliver's, to get you more ticket sales, to get you more notice, to get you whatever?" It's so nice to have another entrepreneur who's going through so many of the same things. We bail each other out of things last-minute. I help with cake pickups; she helps with events. It's amazing.
And on the career mentorship side, Chris Schuermann here at St. Francis Seraph Ministries. From the first time I met about potentially using space here and what would become the Saint Anthony Center, she has just made sure that we are always taken care of, that we have everything we need: any connection, any person, anything that she can help us with, give us, connect us to. I feel like a lot of times with nonprofits, it's like we're all competing for the same dollars, and you're going to hold on tight to all the things that you have and not ever give up anything for anyone else, and she is the complete opposite of that. She gives great advice. I love that, now that we're all in the building together, I can just go right down the hall to her and vent or ask for advice. Pretty much every single time she's like, "Oh, I have a connection; I know someone; let me make this phone call for you. Let me do this email introduction." For everything under the sun; she has never steered me wrong. She's the person I like to go to first for anything related to this world. And I think so highly of her so to see her be proud of me when she brings tours through and celebrate all of our successes with her, it is amazing.