When a Verona mother wanted to help Hurricane Harvey victims in August 2017, she was “overwhelmingly” asked by those affected to make buying diapers the goal of her fundraising.

Megan Sollenberger did not know her philanthropic effort would lead her down a “rabbit hole” about the need for assistance with buying diapers. That led to her founding the Dane County Diaper Bank a year later in October 2018.

The thought of donating diapers to hurricane victims had never crossed the mind of the Dane County Diaper Bank CEO. But Kollenberger’s in-laws in Houston, Texas informed her that victims of the hurricane were asking hospitals for diapers.

That brought to her attention the Houston Diaper Bank.

Sollenberger, a mother of two small kids, was surprised she had never heard of the concept of a diaper bank before. As she dug deeper, she learned that government assistance efforts such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) don’t cover diaper expenses, as they’re considered a “non-essential” item.

Knowing from experience not only how essential, but also how expensive diapers can be for parents, she embraced the cause.

Sollenberger set a goal to raise $250 to purchase diapers for the Houston bank in 2017. After surpassing $3,000 in donations, she felt inspired to launch a similar initiative in the City of Verona.

Sollenberger signed a lease to a W. Verona Ave. location on March 1 this year to be the base of her operations, just before the pandemic became widespread in the U.S.

She launched the Dane County Diaper Bank two years ago to work with partner agencies around the county to distribute diapers to families in need.

“We don’t do direct aid,” she said. “We wanted to eliminate access barriers such as for people who work multiple jobs or ride buses – finding times and accessible locations is extremely difficult for that population.”

The cost for the Verona organization to support one child for a month is $12, which Sollenberger said is similar to a lunch out or a couple cups of coffee. That can provide 90 diapers per child for a month. Other social service organizations tend to provide only 30-45 diapers for an entire family per month, she said.

By joining forces with food banks and other distribution partners, the goal is for families in need to not have to go anywhere extra, but to have diapers come to them.

“We try to be a reliable, consistent force in the lives of the families we serve,” Sollenberger said.

Some of those organizations have mandatory reporters that make home visits. And the diapers “help build trust and rapport and strengthen relationships between social workers and clients,” Sollenberger said.

The number of diapers distributed monthly was already growing 10-20% per month before pandemic, averaging around 11,000 diapers per month at the beginning of this year. In March, Dane County Diaper Bank suddenly became “flooded” with requests from other agencies for help.

That has increased the monthly output to around 31,000 to 33,0000 diapers, Sollenberger said.

Approximately 470 children are provided diapers per month by the organization, she said.

“People who have never accessed social programs before are now,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of people who wouldn’t typically be accessing these services starting to look and needing temporary assistance.

It’s been a little overwhelming, but extraordinary.”

While she had intended for the small organization to grow and scale-up slowly, she went from having one partner agency to seven this year, and is orienting two more partners early in 2021.

Some of those partner agencies include Reach Dane, Reach Green, the Social Justice Center in Madison, the Salvation Army, Middleton Outreach Ministry and the Graduate Worker Union of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Our general service model has not changed,” she said. “If anything, it strengthened our resolve to keep working with this model because it’s working so well – people behind the scenes funneling diapers to people doing case management work.”

That unforeseen, rapid growth has meant the diaper bank has already outgrown the 900 square foot basement space it is operating from in Verona. Plus, Sollenberger said it’s become tiring to “hulk” boxes of diapers up and down the stairs.

“We could not have anticipated the pandemic, it’s a little unfortunate we signed a lease,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented another change for the nonprofit.

Sollenberger was a full-time Epic Systems employee. As such said she “didn’t have a ton of extra bandwidth” to grow the organization.

However, as the pandemic presented changes to her work life, she decided to leave her position at Epic in July, to oversee the diaper bank full-time.

“I had been at Epic over seven years so it was a hard decision to leave, but my passions lie in the bank,” she said. “With the pandemic raging on and us scaling so quickly, I decided it was now or never and finally made the leap.”

Initially, she will not take a salary, as she said she doesn’t feel right about earning an income from only a two-year-old nonprofit, which has a $60,000 annual operating budget.

When the lease for her current headquarters ends next March, Sollenberger plans to relocate. She said warehouse spaces particularly those with a loading dock – which is an upgrade she is seeking – can range from 2,000 to 10,000 square feet.

As of now, 94 cents out of every dollar donated to the Dane County Diaper Bank is spent on providing for families. An increase in square footage will mean an increase in rent, so she’s trying to find the right space.

“We want to keep close to that if we decide to move and be judicious with our money,” Sollenberger said.

With the help of local businesses, the bank was able to get off the ground. Miller and Sons Supermarket was home to the organization’s first diaper collection drive two years ago. However, Sollenberger said she doesn’t put much energy or effort into planning drives, instead letting clubs and community groups approach her to host them.

She focuses more on fundraising and grant writing. Sollenberger said people spend way more money on

individual packages of diapers at stores than the organization does buying in bulk.

She said she works to get local businesses to become community partners by including the organization in annual giving programs or offering to match employee donations.

Monetary donations have become even more important this year, as the pandemic led to the cancelation of annual fundraisers such as a golf outing and silent auction.

“We spend 30% of what people would on diapers, so our time is best spent chasing after every dollar we’re able to raise – as an organization we focus on raising dollars over diapers, because we can stretch dollars further,” she said.

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.