Parenting is a tough job, and Maria Regalado knew she had gotten it wrong with her two oldest children.
After spoiling her first son, now 24, she found him to be lazy and expecting to be coddled. And having failed to develop a positive relationship with her daughter, Regalado now sees her only on visits to the county jail, where the 21-year-old is serving time for stealing cars.
So when a friend told her about free parenting classes at Brownson House, a Catholic Charities community center in East Los Angeles, she saw an opportunity. She could learn to better raise her three youngest children and the two grandchildren that her incarcerated daughter left behind.
"With parenting classes, it doesn't matter how old your kids are," Regalado said. "The minute they're born, you need to know how to treat them, how to talk to them."
But the 44-year-old grandmother also had another incentive: free diapers. In exchange for regular attendance at the six-week parenting course -- every Thursday for two hours -- in February and March, Catholic Charities promised a week's worth of diapers.
"I think this was a great way of putting it together, a very smart thing to do," said Jasmin Hernandez, a case manager at Brownson House. "If we were just to advertise that we had diapers, we would have finished giving them out in half an hour."
The mutually beneficial arrangement sprang from a partnership between Catholic Charities and the newly formed Los Angeles Diaper Drive -- a nonprofit service that provides free diapers to low-income parents.
The charity group provides the venues and hires instructors from Community Outreach for Prevention & Education, a nonprofit healthcare organization; the diaper drive brought a week's worth of diapers to each class for distribution.
Since its inception last year, the partnership has provided three sessions of classes open to low-income parents: two 12-week programs and one six-week course. Class sizes range from 10 to 14 people. The next session starts this month.
"We didn't want to just give them a freebie, 'Here's a packet of diapers,' " said Melissa Ratcliff, a Los Angeles Diaper Drive co-founder. "Giving them something concrete they can use was important to us."
The parenting class curriculum, put together by Community Outreach for Prevention & Education, covers parent and child nutrition, domestic violence and child abuse, baby sleep patterns, child discipline and various styles of parenting.
For most participants, free diapers relieve tight budgets. To buy diapers for her two grandchildren, which cost about $80 a month, Regalado had to deny her children simple luxuries.
"I had to take some privileges from my 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, certain things like no more pizza. I couldn't take them to McDonald's anymore," she said. "On a budget, it was hard for me to buy Pampers."
The high cost of diapers partly prompted Ratcliff and her friend Caroline Kunitz to start Los Angeles Diaper Drive last year.
"With my son, he would sometimes go through 10 diapers a day," Ratcliff said. "That can be $100 a month. I can handle that, but for someone who's making less than $13,000 a year, that's a lot of money."
The nonprofit also partners with Angel Interfaith Network to provide free diapers to mothers who give birth at County-USC Medical Center's Women's and Children's Hospital -- at least 93% of whom live below the poverty line, according to hospital officials.
The diaper drive's Mother's Day fundraiser collected $20,000 and 4,000 diapers. It plans to donate the diapers to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and use the money to fund year-round parenting classes at Brownson House and in El Monte.
In addition to the initial draw of free diapers, mothers found rich rewards from their classroom experience.
A lesson on healthful nutrition prompted Veronica Rivera, 28, for example, to change her family's diet.
"I was a big red-meat eater, but now my refrigerator has only chicken," she said.
Her four young children eat more vegetables now that she has learned how to make them more appealing. Instead of a naked presentation of cooked vegetables, she incorporates them into tasty soups.
The women also learned to rely on each other for advice and emotional support. For many, the class became a haven for discussing family problems, financial worries and health issues. And because the materials were presented in Spanish, language barriers disappeared.
Instructor Maria Lara called the vast improvement in the women's self-esteem their greatest achievement.
"They feel more secure and have more motivation," she said. "They want to go back to school; they want to do something to change their lives. They'll have more participation with their families."
Regalado already feels closer to her children and her grandchildren, who call her "my other mommy," because she feels more confident about communicating with them.
No longer does she yell at her teenage children or slam the door if they argue about going out late with friends or spending money. Instead, she warns them about drugs and alcohol and explains why finances are tight.
"I learned how to not hurt their feelings, and now they don't hurt me," she said.
With a giggle, she added: "And I didn't have to buy Pampers."