[Dioceses of Northwest Pennsylvania and Western New York] When she first realized that her church, like others across the country, would be closing its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jenn Campbell of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church in Warren, Pennsylvania, thought first of the clients of her diapers and feminine hygiene ministry.
“I broke into tears,” she said. “And it wasn’t me I was worried about, it was the recipients. I’m thinking, if they can’t come in, how do I meet their needs? People need diapers whether there’s COVID-19 or not.”
The Diapers & Such Ministry helps people in Warren County who are in need of toilet paper, feminine hygiene items and disposable baby diapers. Started six years ago, the program served 100 families in 2019.
“It was born out of my own personal struggles,” Campbell said. “I don’t have kids, but I’ve lived in poverty pretty much my entire adult life because I have a permanent disability. I see my family and friends that struggle to afford diapers. And for me personally, I struggled to afford feminine products, and I thought, I wonder if there’s anybody out there who helps with this?”
She contacted the local Salvation Army office and a local pregnancy support center, both of which were well aware of the needs she described. “They said, ‘you’ll probably be inundated if you start this.’ That was kind of the general consensus. Everybody said, ‘Yes there’s a need, and we get requests, but we can’t meet the need.’ And that was kind of the final straw. I said, OK, nobody in town’s doing this, I’m going to see if I can make it happen.”
Next, Campbell approached Trinity’s vicar, the Rev. Matthew Scott. “I told him my basic idea was to collect and distribute diapers, wipes, toilet paper, basic necessities that can’t be bought with food stamps or WIC benefits,” Campbell said, referring to Women, Infants and Children, the federally-supported supplemental nutrition program.
Scott said he was “floored” to learn of the restrictions that prevented women from buying such essential items. “When I heard this, I had two young children who were out of diapers at that point, and I was just horrified,” he said. “Jenn developed a ministry pretty rapidly. She has this ability to deliver and to communicate.”
Presented initially at Trinity’s annual meeting, the idea for the ministry did not take off with the congregation right way. Campbell was persistent, however, and eventually used her own birthday as an opportunity to raise the initial funds for the project.
“I bought a birthday cake and brought it to church and said, If you donate something you can have a piece of cake,” she said. “The response was tremendous. It was overwhelmingly tremendous. And I pretty much fully stocked the ministry and was ready to go at the end of that day.”
Before the pandemic, the parish placed signs outside the church once a week, and clients were able to walk in, provide basic information and receive whatever they needed. When COVID-19 hit, Campbell asked Scott if the ministry should be put on hold. Scott was not sure. “But after talking to the bishop, I decided this was actually a life-sustaining ministry, and we can find ways to do our best to provide it,” he said.
Looking for a safe way to continue, Campbell found a Facebook Group called Helping Hands of Warren County. She asked the group administrator if she could post an item about Diapers and Such. “And the person that owns the group replied and said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll donate a couple hours a week to do deliveries.’ So I went back to Matthew and said, I have a volunteer who’s willing to do delivery, and he knows the area.”
People in need of diapers (and such) can contact the parish by phone to arrange a delivery. As Warren County moves into the yellow phase of Pennsylvania’s reopening plan, modified in-person service may resume, either at the church door or curbside when the weather is right, Scott said.
Reflecting on the people who come to her for basic necessities like toilet paper, Campbell wonders how the pandemic will affect her ministry as more people in Warren County face financial hardship. “I think about how people that have money and have lived comfortably for a while, who may have suddenly found themselves basically in my shoes or possibly worse off,” she said. “There are people who’ve lost jobs and they’ve never been in this situation in their life.”
While Campbell is thrilled that her ministry has continued during the pandemic, the joy is tinged with sadness. “There was that feeling of disconnect because for the last six years before COVID-19, I literally interacted with every single person face-to-face,” she said. “I got to know a little bit about their families and their struggles and some of their stories. And I see these people that look like they’re trampled by life.
“I start by asking basic questions about what they need, and then I give them a bag and they say, ‘You’re giving me all this?’ People are so grateful, even though it’s not a lot. I love what I do. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I knew there was a need when I started, but I didn’t fully realize how deep the need was.”