A Fitting Solution
Words by Paige Townley
Photos provided by Dributts
Sometimes you need to get outside of your comfort zone to find your life’s purpose. And oftentimes, discovering that purpose can lead you to where you least expect, like starting a nonprofit diaper company to help vulnerable children in developing countries.
Such was the case for Michael Wahl, an Atlanta-area pastor-turned-diaper-designer who was first drawn to helping others in need while serving in the Army. “My time in the service showed me that there is a whole world out there beyond the American dream,” he says. “That’s when I really learned about how important mission work is. I saw so much need, and it grabbed me.”
After being discharged, Michael was determined to help others beyond the pulpit or the war zone. And when the earthquake hit Haiti in 2012, Michael knew he had to act. He got on a plane, flew to the devastated island, and looked for ways to help. “I didn’t know how to help or what to do,” he says. “But what I did know was that I wanted to do whatever I could.”
Michael ended up working in a community north of Port-au-Prince, and the need he saw was overwhelming: The people there had no electricity and no running water, an impoverishment that existed long before the earthquake. He worked to try to meet some of their immediate needs, such as providing food, fixing broken wells, and even digging new wells. He also got water filters for the community to help control bacteria that was contaminating the water and making them sick. From there, he discovered another incredible need: toilets. “It blew me away that most communities in Haiti didn’t have any,” he says.
Michael and his group began building latrines for the communities they served in the hope of stopping bacteria from getting into the water. But even with the addition of latrines, he saw that people, particularly babies, were still getting sick. “I didn’t understand how,” Michael says. “Then one day it hit me. I saw a mother picking up her naked baby and bringing her inside their house. Not having a diaper on, the baby was spreading diseases.”
From that point on, Michael was determined to solve the problem—one that kills 2,195 children worldwide every day. But doing so was much harder than he could have anticipated. One reason was because no one in the community Michael was serving understood the problem of fecal matter getting inside homes or around food and water sources, much less what a diaper is and what its purpose is. Beyond that, Haiti had, and still has, a poor waste disposal system, so contemporary disposable diapers presented a problem. “I thought maybe a cloth diaper would be the solution, but they have to be boiled or soaked in hot water, and mothers in developing countries often can’t do that,” Michael says. “Even if they did, the diaper would take too long to dry and would cause diaper rash. I realized that the only solution was to develop something new.”
Michael left Haiti to create a diaper that met the needs of the mothers and families there. After serious trial and error, Michael created DriButts, a diaper made of a breathable, dri-fit material on the outer shell and a highly absorbable bamboo insert that helps fight bacteria. The diaper dries quickly—the outer shell in about 30 minutes and the insert within 90 minutes—and is outfitted with snaps that allow it to fit a child from newborn to three years of age. “The diaper performed even better than our expectations,” Michael adds. “But from there, the challenge was getting the mothers to actually use them. You’re talking about people who had never heard of a diaper.”
With about sixty diapers in hand, Michael returned to the same community in Haiti, and in addition to handing out diapers, he began educating families. “The product is only as good as your leadership and education,” Michael says. “If we were going to change the culture, we had to change the way they thought. We had to educate them to understand about bacteria and fecal matter.”
After multiple trips to and from Haiti, and a continual education process, Haitian mothers began using the DriButts diapers on their babies. The results were extremely positive. Before the diapers, children in the community were suffering from fecal-related illnesses, such as diarrhea, for months at a time. The diapers helped reduce the sickness down to just days. “It’s not all diapers,” Michael says. “It’s also due to educating the families, but the diapers have truly been a lifesaver because these babies were dying from diarrhea and other fecal-related illnesses.”
After starting out sewing diapers at the kitchen table, DriButts has now distributed 30,000 diapers to about 30 communities in Haiti, along with other countries, such as Honduras and Nicaragua. Michael hopes to get another 30,000 DriButts diapers delivered in the next few years. Whatever the future holds, Michael’s just happy he’s found his purpose and a way to help those in need.