One of the families was living in a motel, a day or two away from homelessness. Another mother was about 17 years old, if that. A third had two children in diapers, less than a year apart in age.
As the COVID-19 virus swept through Los Angeles and across the globe in March, millions lost their jobs — and those on the margins were pushed into even deeper distress. Ivor Weiner, a professor of special education and director of CSUN’s Family Focus Resource Center, and his colleagues have worked for years to help local families whose children have special needs. Many of the families are undocumented, and most struggle with poverty.
“We’d uncovered a lot of issues, the most heart-wrenching stories, even pre-COVID-19,” Weiner said. “Families close to eviction, domestic abuse, kids with multiple conditions. And then COVID hit. We are doing webinars and virtual support groups like every other organization, trying to maintain connection with families. But then Victoria [Berrey] said, ‘We’ve gotta do something.’”
Berrey, program manager of the Family Focus Resource Center, proposed to Weiner and their colleagues: “Let’s do a diaper drive. I think food is well taken care of, but nobody’s doing diapers.”
That was April 16. By April 23, Weiner was doing his first delivery run of CSUN’s “Project Diaper Drive.”
“For me, this is action,” Weiner said. “I don’t consider myself a scholar in the traditional sense, although I maintain an active research agenda. I consider myself a community professor, and this is making a real difference in our community. At the end of the day, this makes me appreciate what I have.”
Weiner, a former courier in his youth and an RV enthusiast, tapped his experience driving large vehicles and doing deliveries — and the staff had the perfect vehicle: CSUN’s Family Focus Resource Center full-sized van, in action since 2014 for developmental screening and services in the community. They’d recently commissioned a new “wrap” decal for the van, with a proud, red CSUN logo. (As luck would have it, that van facelift was completed just before the pandemic.)
The center, in CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education, has partnered with the North Los Angeles County Regional Center to serve families in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys for decades, Weiner said.
With limited budget, staff and CSUN’s one van, the regional center is referring only families in the most dire straits to the program.
“We heard stories of families trying to wash and reuse disposable diapers!” Weiner said. “They’re that desperate. We’re just trying to do one family at a time. We’ll continue as long as we can.” The Los Angeles Times even wrote about the diaper crisis, he said.
In a black CSUN polo shirt, Weiner pops out of the red van in a face mask and disposable gloves. He’s often assisted by his daughter Layla, 22, a former CSUN student. Layla helps navigate to various addresses and digs packages of diapers out of the van’s cargo hold. Each family receives a couple packages of diapers (sizes 3 to 5 are most popular) and, if requested, a package of baby wipes.
Weiner and a few other staff members take turns delivering the diapers outside the families’ front doors if possible, minimizing interaction. On Thursday, he steered the red van through the streets of Canoga Park, packed with high-density apartment buildings.
“Every time we have asked the Family Focus Resource Center for any kind of help, they have always treated us like family,” said Julie, mom to a 3-year-old with special needs, who received a delivery this week. “The diapers and wipes could not have come at a better time. It’s been very difficult trying to purchase diapers and wipes. We appreciate CSUN and the Family Focus Resource Center.”
The center is ordering boxes of diapers from Amazon and Costco, though they’ve been flagged by both for trying to order in quantity — “Amazon only sees us as an individual,” Weiner said. The small scale and logistics of their nascent campaign are daunting, he said, but their team is taking it one day and one family at a time.
For more than 23 years, CSUN’s Family Focus Resource Center has provided parent-to-parent support, education and information to parents and caregivers of children with special needs and the professionals who serve them.
“I’m very grateful to CSUN for what I have,” said Weiner, who was awarded one of the CSU’s highest honors in 2018 for his service. “A stable job, and a community that pulls together.
“This is our earthquake moment,” he said. “That [1994 Northridge] crisis resulted in trauma for many. That trauma brought the campus community together. It’s in our CSUN DNA, and I think this trauma will bring us together. This is a community that’s so collaborative. I’ll be interested to see how this brings us even closer and makes us even more connected.”
To learn more about the Project Diaper Drive or if you have children with special needs and need support, visit https://www.csun.edu/family-focus-resource-center or call (818) 677-6854.