A random click led to her ‘calling’ – and the founding of Cincinnati’s only diaper bank
“Don’t randomly click links online unless you’re prepared for your whole life to change,” joked Megan Fischer, CEO and founder of Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank.
She’s qualified to offer the advice, considering that’s exactly what happened to her. A scroll through Facebook led her to start a nonprofit, meeting a need she hadn’t even known existed.
In 2014, Fischer, a Miami University graduate with degrees in journalism and creative writing, worked in content development at Cengage, an education technology company.
On her lunch break, the Milford native came across the link to what she thought was an article about cloth diapering. Eight months pregnant with an almost 2-year-old, she clicked it to read more. The story was actually about a diaper bank in another city.
“That’s how I learned ‘diaper need’ is a thing, that diapers aren’t covered by government assistance,” she said. “If a caregiver needs help, there’s really nowhere to go.
“It was so sad,” she said. “I was in my cube at work, crying.”
Fischer immediately wanted to help. Her first instinct was to volunteer at the local diaper bank. But with a few more clicks, she learned Cincinnati didn’t have one.
More clicks led her to the National Diaper Bank Network and resources for starting one. With a toddler, a full-time job and a baby on the way, that didn’t seem like a possibility. Besides, she had zero experience in the nonprofit world, not even as a volunteer or donor.
So she dismissed the idea, rationalizing that someone else was probably already working on a solution.
The difference a year makes
But a year went by, and no one had opened a diaper bank locally. That whole time, the link to the National Diaper Bank Network stayed open in Fischer’s browser, and the idea stayed prominent in her mind.
She’d never fully understood what people meant when they talked about “a calling.” Now, she got it.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.
So she stopped worrying about failing and, as she puts it, “got out of my own way.”
From there, things moved fast. Fischer is not one to do things halfway.
“I’m type A to the extreme,” she said. “I could work 24 hours a day and wish there were more hours so I could get more done.”
She devoted her evenings, weekends and vacation days to Sweet Cheeks while still working full-time. It appealed to her entrepreneurial spirit: From selling embroidery floss jewelry on the playground in third grade to selling Mary Kay or handmade cards as an adult, she often had a small side business.
“Running a nonprofit is running a business,” she said. “I had no idea you could do good in the world and fulfill that entrepreneurial drive.”
Fischer spent six months working on details. It’s a simple model: Sweet Cheeks buys diapers and accepts donated ones, then distributes them to agencies working with families in need. In April 2016, she distributed her first 3,500 diapers to three partner agencies from her basement. She soon had a waiting list for agencies, and by the end of the year, she’d given out 156,000 diapers.
Growing by leaps and bounds
Today, the organization distributes 160,000 to 200,000 diapers per month – more than 2 million per year – to 53 partners. (Even at that, Sweet Cheeks is only meeting 20 percent of the diaper need in our area, Fischer estimated.) The nonprofit occupies a 16,000-square-foot facility in Lower Price Hill and employs four full-time staff members, one part-timer and two contractors. Volunteers are critical; Sweet Cheeks needs hundreds of volunteer hours each month.
Fischer attributes the nonprofit’s quick success to several factors. Its branding – a memorable name that “makes people smile” and its mascot, a diaper-wearing flying pig named Morty – didn’t hurt. But it mostly goes back to the cause.
“Babies are an easy sell,” she said. “Clean diapers are a simple concept.”
“Also, the need is so great,” she added, noting that nationally, one in three families experiences diaper need. “For agencies serving families with young kids, it’s one of the number one requested things, and they’re so expensive that agencies don’t have budget for it.”
Santa Maria Community Services partnered with Sweet Cheeks back when Fischer was distributing diapers from her home. The agency now receives 8,000 diapers per month, noted Chief Program Officer Julie McGregor.
She isn’t surprised by Sweet Cheeks’ “exponential growth,” and cites another contributing factor: Fischer herself.
“Megan is a fantastic leader,” she said. “She’s still down to earth, she understands the families, she understands the agency partners and she’s able to use that understanding to get more resources, more funding, more of what she needs to help that trickle down to the families.
“I think her enthusiasm is contagious,” she added. “She’s passionate about the work, and you can feel that. She really cares.”
All that passion and hard work can make it difficult to achieve work-life balance, however.
“The entrepreneur life can be really harmful to family,” Fischer said. “It’s easy to let the business take over your life,” and Sweet Cheeks did for a time.
But with a divorce and the pandemic hitting in close succession, she slowed down to put her family – son Archer, 9, and daughter Elsa, 7, plus three dogs and a cat – first.
“I want my kids to be proud of me, and I want them to know what it means to have a mom who cares about them and puts them first, but she can also have a career and be successful and do a little bit of good in the world,” she said.
The kids get to be part of that good. “As soon as they could count to 25, they were putting diapers into stacks to be wrapped,” she said.
To unplug, Fischer does puzzles and cross stitches (admittedly, “downtime” that still produces something), often while listening to audiobooks. Last year, she took the first two-week vacation of her career.
“If you don’t fill up your own cup … then you have nothing to give anybody else,” she said.
Beyond diapers to other dry needs
What Fischer hopes to give to local families is to fill the gap between the diapers they need and what they can afford.
“The families we serve love their babies,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it would feel like to love my baby and not be able to give them something as simple as a clean diaper as soon as they needed it.”
She also believes a tangible item like a diaper can make a mental difference, not just a financial one.
“The work of getting out of poverty is so difficult, and the payout from it is not immediate,” she said. “It’s a good incentive to keep going and keep showing up at the service agency (for) services that will make a difference down the road,” such as financial counseling, addiction treatment, training or wellness checkups.
It didn’t take long for Fischer to move beyond diapers. Early on, she realized hygiene items were a “whole missing category in government assistance.” Period supplies are another example.
“Our menstruating caregivers were choosing between buying period supplies for themselves or diapers for their babies,” she said. “Menstruaters were missing school, work and daily life because they didn’t have the supplies they needed.”
Working with the Junior League of Greater Cincinnati in 2018, she launched Tidal Babe Period Bank. It now distributes 10,000 kits per year. Currently in the works is Fly and Dry Basic Needs Bank, which offers potty training resources and recently piloted an adult incontinence program. She’s hoping for stable funding to get that program fully off the ground this year.
“Again, nobody’s doing it, so I feel a real urgency,” she said.
All three programs are now under the parent company COVERD Greater Cincinnati – “covering that whole region of the body.”
Whatever the future holds, Fischer feels good about the work so far.
“No matter where Sweet Cheeks ends up or what happens to this organization in the future, the good that’s already been done and the impact on families we’ve already had won’t go away,” she said.
Partner organizations can attest to that.
“Megan is truly inspiring!” said Claire Pollock, senior director of community engagement at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The museum added a diaper collection barrel outside the Children’s Museum last August; it’s already been filled several times, said Whitney Owens, the museum’s chief learning officer.
“Megan and her team are making a very positive impact on our community,” Pollock said.
McGregor said the families Santa Maria serves are grateful for a little extra help.
“I think it helps families to not stress as much about diapers,” she said. “It frees up some cash resources they can use to pay rent or utilities, or buy things like detergent or toilet paper … I think it is a step up toward stabilization. Sweet Cheeks is meeting a need in Cincinnati for sure.”