Our nation has many unsung heroes who devote countless hours to serving their communities. Since 1972, the Jefferson Awards Foundation has worked to empower and recognize such heroes, including through an annual awards ceremony (see sidebar on the Jefferson Awards Foundation).
Highmark Health is one of a select group of “Jefferson Awards Champions” that nominates individuals in the workplace for Jefferson Awards. Every year, 12 finalists are selected, with one winner sent to the Jefferson Awards Foundation’s annual ceremony in Washington D.C.
This year’s Highmark Health winner is Cathy Battle. By day, Battle works at Forbes Hospital, part of the Allegheny Health Network, as a respiratory therapist. She works 12-hour shifts and helps countless individuals while on the job; add her community involvement, and she never clocks out from serving others.
In 2012, Battle and her husband took on an issue seldom discussed: access and ability to afford clean diapers. They founded the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank, which works with other groups and charities to provide free diapers to infants, toddlers, and senior citizens in need — more than 360,000 diapers provided just in its first five years.
Battle is not only a champion for accessible diapers, she exemplifies the idea of selfless community service; her 2017 Highmark Health Jefferson Award (and two prior selections as a Jefferson Awards finalist) are a testimony to that. But, as she emphasized throughout our interview, she and her team don’t do this work for awards or recognition, but to help families who need a little assistance.
Corey Florindi (CF): How did the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank first become an idea?
Cathy Battle (CB): My husband is a pastor, and he works with many families in urban communities. At an after-school picnic one day, he asked a group of mothers and grandmothers if we could do anything for them that no one else was doing. They said they could get food, energy assistance, clothing, and housing, but they all said they had the same need: diapers.
When my husband told me about this, I’d never heard of this issue. We decided our church would do a diaper drive for our annual community day. We collected almost 4,000 diapers in one day — even more than needed for the people we were helping. So I got on the Internet and started researching what to do with the diapers we had left. I came across Huggies’ Every Little Bottom campaign. I called and told them about the diapers we’d collected, and they directed me to the National Diaper Bank Network.
I learned that the first diaper bank started in 1994, in Arizona, and they were moving across the country, but they told me they had no one in western Pennsylvania yet. They suggested that I find an agency serving low-income families and donate the diapers to them, so that’s what I did.
In the meantime, I was telling our partner churches and asking them to donate diapers. Eventually we had enough donations that we began working with a second partner agency to distribute them. From there we decided we also needed to raise more awareness about the need for diapers. We first went to the Rotary Club and the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce.
The Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank grew out of that — we just kept talking and raising awareness, organizations kept having diaper drives, and that meant we could partner with more agencies to get all those donated diapers to the people who needed them.
CF: Starting an organization from scratch isn’t the easiest process in the world. What were some of the obstacles to overcome?
CB: I’m a respiratory therapist, so I didn’t have that business background you need to start a nonprofit. I did eventually go back to school and receive my business degree. But starting from scratch, I had to ask myself what I needed to get going. Everything was a learning experience. Once I accomplished one task, I’d realize I needed something else, which would lead to something else. I will say that once you get out in the business community, people help and tell you what you’re missing. What really helped was getting together our business plan. Once we had that, we knew exactly what direction we needed to go.
CF: What advice would you give to someone starting a similar community service organization?
CB: It’s actually pretty simple advice. Find a great cause that you’re passionate about, learn all the facts you can, ask questions, and raise awareness. You can do it!
CF: The Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank has grown quite a bit in a short time. Your partner list is extensive.
CB: We have about 35 partner organizations — and I have a stack of agency applications I haven’t even been able to get to yet. We’re the only agency in western Pennsylvania that solely gives out diapers. That’s our mission. And, as we raise awareness, more and more agencies find out and realize they need diapers, too. Again, unlike other necessities, there’s no government assistance for diapers. Whenever we speak in front of foundations or other groups, they always ask how this got missed. How did this simple thing get missed when 1 in 3 American families struggle to provide diapers?
CF: Some folks might not realize you also provide this assistance to the elderly. Do you find that seniors are a more marginalized group?
CB: Absolutely! Think about seniors’ needs and the cost of their supplies. Most of them are on a budget and might not be able to afford all of their basic needs. They may stay home and not get out to church or other activities, or even run errands, because they don’t have incontinence supplies or the ability to go buy them. Wherever we speak about this problem you see seniors in the audience nodding their heads because they or someone they know can relate to it.
There is high demand and nobody else in this region does what we do. I can’t keep up with all the legwork and there is always the question of funds, but I’d love to see this organization continue growing. Our board is complete now — they’re excellent. I have a PR person; we hired an office administrator. And part of growing is partnering with more organizations throughout western Pennsylvania.
CF: How could someone get involved with the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank?
CB: Our website is a good starting point. The most helpful way to get involved is to organize a diaper drive. We always need more diapers — and a drive is also a great way to raise awareness. People can also donate or even volunteer with us. We always need help!
CF: You have also lobbied for diaper access in Washington D.C. What is that experience like?
CB: There’s a group representing diaper banks from across the U.S. — they’re in D.C. as we speak in fact. Last year was our first official lobbying trip. I met with a number of Senator Bob Casey’s staffers, and I’ve been in touch with them and with Senator Casey since then. He and Senator Al Franken from Minnesota introduced the Hygiene Assistance for Families of Infants and Toddlers Act, which was endorsed by the National Diaper Banks Network.
When I’m in D.C. for the Jefferson Awards, I’ll have the opportunity to meet with Senator Casey. I’ll be honored to meet him. I have a letter of encouragement not only from Senator Casey, but one from President Obama.
There’s no government assistance when it comes to diapers, so it’s great to see politicians asking how they can help.
CF: Advocating for an issue on as big a stage as the U.S. Senate — were you nervous at all?
CB: Oh, yes. It’s a great honor to go in front of your elected officials. It’s humbling, too. But when you’re helping a baby, you can’t go wrong. It’s the best cause ever. Not only babies, but seniors as well. Babies are helpless and innocent. Seniors have paved the way for new generations and it’s up to us to help them out. Both are vulnerable and deserve our help.
CF: In regards to the Jefferson Awards given through Highmark Health, what was that process like?
CB: My coworker nominated me. There were around 100 nominees this year. I was one of the 12 finalists last year for Highmark Health too, and the year before that I was one of the nominees the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made. But it was still a surprise to be the overall winner. I was at work and my coworkers told me someone called from Highmark Health. When I called back, they told me I’d won and I was amazed!
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