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Alumna has sweet reason for earning 40 Under 40 honor

Things happen for a reason. That’s the lesson University of Phoenix alumna Cori Smith learned after depleting her savings to pay for a basic necessity — diapers.

Bedridden during pregnancy, Smith lost her banking job. One month after the birth of their daughter, her husband, Marquette, lost his job as well. The couple had to take money out of their 401(k) plans just to cover their bills. Although friends, family and a government safety net helped, Smith — who now works as a financial secretary at a Memphis middle school — found there was no diaper bank operating in Memphis.

That was eight years ago. Today in Memphis, there’s Sweet Cheeks Diaper Ministry. Smith founded the nonprofit in early 2014 and has donated more than 200,000 clean diapers to 2,000 low-income families. Because of Sweet Cheeks, the Memphis Business Journal this fall named Smith to its list of 40 Under 40, which honors young professionals for their career achievements and community outreach.

Smith says it feels good to help struggling parents.

“If I didn’t go through what I went through, I wouldn’t be able to help people now,” says Smith, 37, who earned a master’s degree in Human Resources Management and Services in 2012 and serves as president of the University’s Alumni Council-Memphis Chapter.

From rags to wishes

Smith and her husband were each unemployed for only a few months, but she couldn’t stop thinking about diapers. She ran across the National Diaper Bank Network while researching diapers and the need that exists among low-income families.

What she learned stunned her: Parents often use rags or newspapers when they can’t afford diapers, or they leave their babies in soiled diapers.

Smith found there was no diaper bank in Memphis. So she created Sweet Cheeks.

At first, she thought she would do a once-a-year diaper drive, but it soon blossomed into something bigger. People would email her or find her on Facebook, both donating and asking for diapers. Over the years, businesses and schools have hosted diaper drives. For instance, the school where Smith works raised $1,000 and held a one-week drive that resulted in 3,000 donated diapers this year.

Smith’s friend and former bank colleague Jessica Oliver remembers Smith writing letters asking for donations and cutting coupons from the newspaper to save money on diapers to give away.

“We were even going around to the hotels, asking for their leftovers,” says Oliver, who serves as treasurer of the Sweet Cheeks board.

The first year, Smith was able to give 5,000 diapers to families in need. The second year, 20,000. So far in 2019, Sweet Cheeks has distributed 85,000 diapers, Smith says.

Through the National Diaper Bank Network, Sweet Cheeks is able to buy Huggies and JetCares diapers at half the price of a big box retailer, she says.

Becoming a “change agent” in diaper delivery

Today, rather than handing out 25-diaper bundles to families, Smith supplies two Memphis organizations, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) and Dorothy Day House, which provide services to low-income and homeless families. When individuals ask for diapers, she refers them to her partners.

Sidney Dennis, the volunteer coordinator at the Dorothy Day House, says that before Sweet Cheeks existed, the nonprofit had to rely on diaper donations from the general public. “Knowing that she has diapers on hand so we can get them when we need them… is a really nice thing,” Dennis says.

As Sweet Cheeks has grown, Smith has added an online component so the Dorothy Day House and MIFA can submit online orders and Smith can track inventory.

Smith’s enthusiasm is contagious, says Dennis, who attended Sweet Cheeks’ inaugural 5K Diaper Dash this year. “She was on the microphone, cheering everyone on, real excited about the cause. She gets others on board by her excitement and her joy.”

Education and persistence

Smith attributes her success to her education. She received her bachelor’s degree in human resources from University of Memphis in 2008 and entered the master’s program at University of Phoenix the following year.

The public administration and communication classes Smith took as part of her degree program have helped her run Sweet Cheeks. “I am able to write grants and sit with local politicians to talk about policy changes,” she says. “I don’t think I could have made it this far without my degree.”

Smith’s persistence led to Sweet Cheeks gaining nonprofit tax status last year.

Her friend Oliver says Smith’s success is also related to her persistence — and her enthusiasm. “That child hasn’t a pessimistic bone in her body,” Oliver says. “She is very ambitious. She perseveres no matter what. She never takes no for an answer, ever. She never gives up.”

Sweet Cheeks is growing, and Smith figures she’ll eventually need to quit her full-time job. Oliver, who recently arranged for the diaper inventory to be moved to a Memphis warehouse and out of Smith’s garage, expects it will be much sooner than planned.

“At the rate she’s going, 2020 is going to be a very big year for her,” Oliver says. “Because it’s Cori, anything is possible.”

By Kristen Moulton, Contributing Writer