For Winter Berry, DO, advocating for children and their families started on a small scale, in poverty-challenged Syracuse, New York, with mountains of diapers in her clinic.
Today, the determined pediatrician is hoping to develop her skills to take her messages of need to US policymakers and legislatures—to make widespread change in the lives of children and families.
Berry, one of the clinical pioneers nominated for this year’s Contemporary Pediatrics Frank A. Oski Children’s Advocacy Award, stands out as a child advocate because of her passion and selflessness, says the pediatrician who nominated her, Elizabeth Nelsen, MD.
“There is no hesitation when she acts to improve the lives of others,” says Nelsen, who, like Berry, is an assistant professor of pediatrics, Upstate Pediatric and Adolescent Center, at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical Center, in Syracuse.
Child advocacy is part of Berry’s daily work as a pediatrician and educator, according to Berry’s colleague. “Dr. Berry expects nothing in return for her work, but she is nonetheless deserving of recognition and honor,” Nelsen tells Contemporary Pediatrics.
Falling in love with Syracuse
Berry first came to Syracuse for clinical rotations during medical school, then for her residency training between 2010 and 2013. She stayed on as faculty because, she says, she fell in love with the patient population and teaching.
Whereas Berry was drawn by medical education and caring for Syracuse families, the city was not without opportunities for advocacy. At the time, Syracuse was infamous for its poverty. “There were census studies and national population studies around poverty that happened to be published around the time I first became faculty. I don’t think it was news to anyone in Syracuse, but the studies showed that about 50% of children in Syracuse were in poverty, and that Syracuse had the highest concentrations of black and Hispanic poverty in the country,” Berry says.
A basic need for diapers
As pediatric researchers, nationwide, focused on poverty’s effects on child health, Berry was at the front line, witnessing families’ struggles. An experience she had working as a resident made her feel helpless and fueled Berry’s desire to help.
“I was the on-call physician and took a call from a mom. She said her child had a stomach bug, and she had gone through an entire supply of diapers. She couldn’t afford any more, and her child was in a plastic bag, in place of a diaper. She wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help, or if there was anywhere I could send her. At the time . . . there wasn’t anywhere in the community to be able to reliably send families,” Berry says.
An article a year later in Contemporary Pediatrics about diaper banks1 would spur the now faculty member into action.
“We have a current events conference that we do for the residents, where we bring recent articles to the trainees to discuss current events. One of the articles in the summer of 2014 was about the concept of diaper need and people establishing diaper banks,” Berry says. “It was written at the time by someone who was a national diaper bank network member—so, very much ahead of the curve on the concept of diaper need, which didn’t become more commonplace until later. After reading the article and discussing it with residents, it inspired me to apply for a grant from our hospital foundation to try to establish a small diaper bank ourselves.”
The resulting grant funded a diaper bank inside Berry’s clinic, but the need would soon outpace what Berry could provide logistically and financially in her office.
“Initially, we offered families diapers on a circumstantial basis—so, for domestic violence, or unexpected illness, or homelessness, or if families were struggling to cover their diaper costs for the month,” Berry says.
Berry ultimately became a partner agency of the Central New York (CNY) Diaper Bank in Syracuse (http://cnydiaperbank.org/). The CNY had the space, fundraising skills, and connections to make the community diaper bank more sustainable, she says.
Since its opening in May 2016, the CNY Diaper Bank has become a big success. It has dispensed over 300,000 diapers. Via the partnership with Berry, it now serves, on average, 100 Upstate Pediatric and Adolescent Center families in Syracuse a month, handing out about 55,000 diapers in the past year. About 1100 families in total have benefited from free diapers, and the number of families keeps growing, according to Berry.
Diaper need has not always been commonly recognized by pediatricians and people in the community, and families who struggle with being able to afford diapers might be reticent to bring it up in a pediatrician’s office, Berry says.
“Having a sustainable supply of diapers has allowed us to screen families for diaper need on a regular basis at their well visits,” says Berry, who has since become a board member at the CNY Diaper Bank. “It serves the purpose of being able to provide them with diapers, but also opens the door to have conversations about other difficulties they might have for which they may need referrals. It makes that conversation a little easier.”