Eric's Heroes: The Diaper Guy is a savior to families in need
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- We all wonder at times what we could do to make the world a better place. For most of us it can be an overwhelming question, and so usually we leave it hanging in the air, unanswered.
Lance Benson was able to answer the question. And then, once answered, it had to be fulfilled. Childhood memories nagged at him, and they teamed up with his conscience to create an irresistible call to action.
He's a regular guy working in an ordinary little office building in Olympia.
He's soft spoken, maybe even a bit shy. He wears a baseball cap pulled down low. Lance is a property manager.
But several times a day he gets phone calls that have nothing at all to do with property or managing.
One of them went like this: "Um, I need help. I need some diapers and wipes for my daughter."
"Come on by," said Lance, "and I'll take care of you."
And then a few minutes later, Lance got up from his desk, walked out of his office and across the hallway to another room, a room overflowing with boxes and bags of diapers. All sizes, all kinds. Stacks and stacks of diapers.
He greeted a tired-looking young mother with a little girl walking beside her.
"What size do you want?" he said to the mother, and then smiled at the girl. "Hey, how old are you?"
Within a minute, the mother and her little girl were walking out carrying a whole bagful of diapers.
The same scenario plays out over and over throughout the day. They show up, they get diapers, they leave.
Lance begins to tell the story of the room full of diapers like this: "Five years ago I was seeing people struggling, and they would debate on paying for food, or diapers, or rent."
That struggle, the struggle of young mothers and babies at risk, cut to his heart.
And so began the unlikeliest of crusades.
He looks around at his little room flowing over with diapers, as if he's still amazed by it all.
"You know," he says, "I was told by someone who I was close with, 'Why are you going to do this? It will fail,' And I thought, 'How could it fail?' "
Lance started at the most grassroots of levels. He asked friends if they had extra diapers. He made calls to day cares centers to see if they had extras that kids had grown out of. He asked his dentist to send him diapers. And his eye doctor.
He started up a Facebook page. And he started putting up little signs around town. "Diapers Wanted."
It was slow going, but his stockpile of diapers started to grow.
"Whoever I ran into," he says, "I was hitting them up for diapers."
He was in contact with churches, and some of them had diaper drives. He asked the Target store if it would donate bags so that moms would have something to carry their diapers in. Target said yes.
He smiles when he thinks about those early days. "I was buying out of people's trunks wherever they would meet me, and on Craigslist, so it was a little strange in the beginning. And slowly I started to make a few connections."
He rented out the office across from him and put up a sign. He called the place "Dry Tikes and Wet Wipes".
And slowly the word got out. Moms started stopping by to get diapers.
Jess Mathews has 28-day old twins. "Diapers..." she says, "Oh my gosh, they're CRAZY expensive."
She leans on Lance heavily. "This really helps..."
It's a steady stream of visitors throughout the day.
Arissa Berryhill has three children. She says she and her husband both work, but they're currently homeless.
"Um, this place is absolutely amazing," she says.
She explained how getting free diapers frees her up to spend more of her limited funds on food.
She walked away with some size-6 diapers, and two different sizes of pull-ups.
Jennifer Sinclair also has three babies. She, too, is homeless and struggling.
I asked her where she is staying, and she answered, "Sometimes with friends, or in our car."
Another customer, Cora Rose, has her hands full in life. She has four children. The oldest is four.
She says that what Lance Benson does for her is, "life changing."
She and her husband planned on having a big family, she says, but they didn't plan on their finances taking a turn for the worse.
Cora Rose let us follow her home to meet her family, and to see her there smiling, surrounded by all four of her children, it was easy to imagine that her life is both exhausting, and expensive, but also full of joy and happiness.
She changes her little girl's diaper while her youngest, maybe 5 months old, waits his turn as his big brother smiles down at him. Off to the side, Cora's oldest girl watches on.
Cora pulls her daughter up by the arms and says, "All done! Now let's get your brother.."
That bag of diapers she brought home from Lance's office will last just a couple days.
How is it, you may wonder, that a guy like Lance Benson understands so intuitively the concept of need?
Maybe it's the fact that he was raised in Olympia as one of nine children.
His family needed, too.
"We grew up really poor and didn't have a lot of money," he says softly, "and I think part of that is understanding that people really struggle with diapers and they have to make those choices. I know we really struggled when we were kids, so I think that's probably part of it."
And so he has very quietly created an answer for mothers who struggle the way his own mother struggled.
It is an amazing thing that Lance Benson has done.
One day not long ago Lance was asked to come to the Olympia Police Department. The department had put on a diaper drive and wanted Lance to see the fruits of its efforts. The whole project was spearheaded by Kristyn Blocher, who had become aware of Lance's efforts. "I was just very impressed with what he was doing as a citizen and a local business owner.."
Lance saw all kinds of people carrying diapers from the precinct to a semi-truck. Moms, dads, kids and lots of police officers. They carried armloads of Huggies and
Pampers and Babies R Us packages and stacked them into the back of the truck.
Lance started loading too. "Uh, it's amazing" he said.
When all was said and done, more than 17,000 diapers were in that truck, and they were taken straight to Lance's modest little office.
There were more diapers than his room could even hold. Some, he said, would be stored somewhere else until they were needed.
"This is the most I've ever seen," he gushed. "It's the biggest donation I've ever received. This is going to last months and months and months. So there will be lots of happy babies out there."
He smiled that quiet, shy smile of his.
He pays the rent for Dry Tikes and Wet Wipes out of pocket. When donations are low he's been known to buy diapers himself. He's spent untold hours tracking down diapers and asking for diapers. Sometimes at night he gets emergency calls from distraught mothers, so he gets out of bed and into his car and drives to the office to meet the mother and give her what she needs. There are calls on weekends, too, and he answers every one of them.
He is The Diaper Guy to a lot of people.
And there are hundreds of tiny little people in the Olympia area who will never know his name, never know how he has improved their life.
But that's OK for Lance Benson, because HE knows. And he remembers. And when those nagging questions pop up about making the world a better place, Lance is able to look at what he has done for the past five years and know in his heart that he answered the question to the very best of his abilities.
And what a lovely feeling that must be...
Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.