Celebrating the Work of the LaundryCares Foundation

In essence, it all began with Hurricane Katrina.

“For a while, I and many of my peers in the business felt an appreciation and a gratitude for the opportunities we’d all enjoyed and the livelihoods that had been derived from the laundry industry,” said Coin Laundry Association President and CEO Brian Wallace, recalling the early days of the association’s charitable foundation. “The thought process was, ‘What can we do to give back to the industry that’s been so good to us – and, more specifically, to give back to those families who patronize the laundromat businesses each and every week.’”

In 2006, Hurricane Katrina struck, leaving its unprecedented trail of destruction. And, in its wake, it left all U.S. citizens, including those in the laundromat business, wanting to help – wanting to do something for their devastated communities.

“That catalyst point, along with an ongoing aspiration to give back, led to the formation of the LaundryCares Foundation,” Wallace explained.

However, for several years, the foundation remained more of a backburner project for the industry. There was a brief partnership with the Habitat for Humanity, some fundraising projects and a few other well-intentioned ideas; however, the organization had yet to hit its stride or find its true mission.

The Three Pillars of Service

Fast forward to late 2014, the phone rang at the CLA offices. It was a cold call from Jane Park Woo of the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative, which is focused on early childhood development and literacy.

Jane and the leadership at Too Small to Fail felt that laundromats could be ideal places to reach less-fortunate, under-resourced families with early childhood development and literacy support that they might not otherwise receive.

“Jane had this great idea,” Wallace said. “And I was smart enough to say, ‘Yes, of course!’ Not knowing how that would actually come about.”

And the LaundryCares Foundation’s first pillar of service was born – a focus on early childhood literacy.

In June 2015, Wallace was invited to represent the laundromat industry at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting. At that time, LaundryCares committed to “Wash Time is Talk Time,” a public awareness campaign where laundry owners were provided posters, worksheets and other materials geared toward prompting parents and caregivers to talk, read and sing with their young children to enhance early brain development and literacy.

“This project gave high visibility to the work we were doing and in a lot of ways put the laundromat industry on the map for a large new group of people who probably hadn’t thought about us in any context,” Wallace noted. “The connections we made continued to multiply, and we continued to do our outreach at similar events. We got to where we wanted to take it another step further.”

In March 2018, using the Clinton Global Initiative meetings as a model, LaundryCares hosted the first-ever Laundry Literacy Summit in Chicago.

“We were able to gather about 35 professionals from the library community, the research community and the laundromat business to discuss whether literacy initiatives in laundromats could go beyond what we’d done thus far, which was putting up posters and raising awareness,” Wallace said. “One of the things that came out of that first Summit was unbridled excitement and encouragement, as well as affirmation that this is something we should continue to pursue.”

Also, during this same period, LaundryCares’ second pillar of service was developing – free laundry days. On the eve of the 2015 Clean Show in Atlanta, LaundryCares partnered with The Laundry Project, a nonprofit that had been running free laundry events throughout the country.

“Our volunteers worked shoulder to shoulder with theirs,” Wallace explained. “We held free laundry events at three locations in Atlanta. We loved the idea of doing a day of service before the trade show. And that kicked off the second part of our initiative, which was to develop and propagate the use of the free laundry concept as a way of giving back directly to the communities that support our business.”

Since the first few Free Laundry Days, the LaundryCares model began to evolve, featuring more than just free laundry and free detergent. Laundry owners began to add food, entertainment, raffle prizes and more – making Free Laundry Days true “events.”

The next step was for LaundryCares’ literacy and free laundry components to come together as one. In fact, the foundation now brands its special events as Free Laundry and Literacy Days. Today, these events also include free books being distributed to the children, reading, storytelling, and local library and literacy organizations sharing their resources and programs with the families who attend.

“As this notion of connecting families at the laundromat with literacy resources through our free laundry events grew, this put momentum behind our second Laundry Literacy Summit, which was held in March 2019,” Wallace said. “We went from about 30 quizzical folks just a year before to more than 100 people who came out to start to build programming behind this movement.”

The 2019 Summit featured the groundbreaking results of LaundryCares’ pilot study on the positive impact of literacy-rich materials in laundromats in New York City, which was conducted with the help of Dr. Susan Neuman at New York University.

Other highlights from the 2019 meeting included the formation of the Laundry Literacy Coalition, an official partnership between LaundryCares and Too Small to Fail, as well as the unveiling of the prototype of what is now LaundryCares’ Family Read, Play and Learn kit.

Since then, more than 80 of the RPL library spaces have been installed and activated in laundromats across the country.

Later this month, the third Laundry Literacy Summit will convene, with new research to share, more partners on board, and an increased emphasis on growth.

“We’ve gone beyond, ‘Does it work?’” Wallace stated. “Now, we’re focused on growing this concept on a large scale to hundreds and thousands of laundromats.”

With the addition of a third pillar of service to the LaundryCares’ mission, the foundation has come full circle. Going back to the original catalyst of Hurricane Katrina, the “third leg of the stool” is disaster recovery and relief.

“In the wake of disaster – after food, shelter and medicine – we would argue that laundry is a close fourth in that hierarchy of basic needs,” Wallace noted. “And, as we’ve reached out to those within the disaster recovery arenas, we’ve had that affirmed. If there is a storm, a wildfire, a flood or some other disruption, we know the victims are often fleeing with just the clothes on their backs – and, as a matter of basic hygiene and sanitation, let alone dignity – a set of clean clothes can go a long way.”

Relatively recent free laundry events following devastating storms – hosted by store owners Rob Maes in Houston and the Williford family in North Carolina – are just a couple of examples of the incredible work the laundromat industry can do in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“Disaster relief is something we’re anxious to push forward in 2020,” Wallace explained. “One of our main objectives is to take it to the next level – like we’ve done with literacy – and discover how, as an industry, we can help fill this essential need.”

It’s Good for Business

Not to be overlooked is the fact that LaundryCares programs and initiatives also can be very good for your laundry business.

“At this point, all of the information is pretty much anecdotal,” explained LaundryCares President Jeff Gardner. “We have exit interviews of customers who have had a LaundryCares experience, whether it was a literacy event or a free laundry event. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about what the laundromat now means to that community and the connection it has made.

“In addition, we know the value of a customer. A customer is worth between $500 and $700 a year, and retaining those customers is as important as attracting new ones. What is that value? More importantly, what is the value of positive word of mouth, when you create an experience for a customer and he or she actually spreads the word about your business. LaundryCares is a differentiator.”

Lisa and Daryl Johnson – who own the Giant Wash chain, headquartered in St. Ansgar, Iowa – saw first-hand how a Family Read, Play and Learn space can set their business apart from the competition.

“We opened a new store in June and had only been open four hours when the first customers walked in,” Lisa recalled. “It was a family with three kids. The little boy opened the door and then turned around to his sisters and said, ‘Check this out! This is sick!’ He was so excited about us having that reading space just for them.

“They began playing school – standing up and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and then the oldest sibling started reading to the younger ones. It was a totally organic moment.”

“As great as it is to interact and do good things for the community, LaundryCares is just simply good business,” Daryl added. “It creates that warm, fuzzy feeling that builds loyalty with customers – emotional loyalty. It’s not necessarily measureable from the standpoint of dollars and sense, but by the amount of repeat customers you see in those spaces.”

What’s Next?

So, what does the future hold for the LaundryCares Foundation?

In three to five years, LaundryCares will have thousands of Read, Play and Learn centers in place, impacting millions of children and their families, according to LaundryCares Executive Vice President Dan Naumann.

“I think all three pillars will grow, and we’ll develop the Laundry Literacy Summit to be the national convening of literacy organizations and companies throughout the country,” he predicted. “I think the number of Free Laundry and Literacy Days will accelerate and impact more communities around the country, with the hopes of regional or even a national Free Laundry Day at some point. We’re still crawling.”

“LaundryCares is about creating sustainable, long-term tools for our industry to build and connect with communities and create a customer experience,” Gardner added. “Our commitment at LaundryCares over the next nine months is to get the channel right. Once we get the channel dialed in, we will have dozens of opportunities to plug into that channel. Ten years from now, LaundryCares will have several different ways to assist owners in making a difference within their communities.”

“We have such a unique channel that I think LaundryCares will become a large, nationwide conduit to help lift our customers up out of their negative situations,” Daryl Johnson said. “I really see us as being the number-one nationwide conduit for all nonprofits to be able to reach our customers. We can truly be plugged into helping change the lives of the people we’re serving. The capacity of what we could do is so massive, but we have to be very careful that what we’re doing is being done with excellence.”

Furthermore, Naumann sees LaundryCares as being the corporate social responsibility segment of the laundromat business.

“CSR is a big part of today’s business climate, and LaundryCares is the way companies can utilize us to provide that to their customers and show their giveback,” he explained. “It’s a pre-packaged CSR component that every business in today’s world needs, and we have it ready to go – you just need to get involved with us.”

“The best days of the foundation are ahead of us,” Wallace concurred. “We’ve got a real obligation to follow through and to see this mission reach its potential. I can’t say enough about the donors, the volunteers, and the in-kind support we’ve received from so many companies throughout the industry to do this together and to make the case for laundries connecting communities.”

Hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day

Of course, hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day is perhaps one of the most obvious ways to get involved with LaundryCares and to give back to the community that supports your laundry business.

Lisa Johnson, who plays a key role in vetting and then preparing Free Laundry Day hosts for the day of the event, offered some insight into what the LaundryCares selection committee is looking for in a Free Laundry Day host – including location, store size, the ability to install an RPL kit, washer capacity and engagement of the operator.

“The selection process begins with those who have gone to LaundryCares.org and filled out an application to be a host site,” Lisa said. “We look for stores that are 5,000 square feet or larger – with at least 60 washers and large-capacity, high-speed machines. It has to be a modern store with that type of capacity simply to meet the real-world logistics of actually doing the amount of laundry in three or four hours that will need to get done during a Free Laundry and Literacy Day.

“The owner’s engagement is critical,” she added. “We want owners who are over-the-moon excited about doing the events. In fact, anyone considering hosting should first go to an event and volunteer. It’s hard to truly understand what a Free Laundry and Literacy Day is like until you’ve actually been to one.”

Here are what a few Free Laundry and Literacy Day hosts had to say about their experience with LaundryCares and reaching out to the communities they serve:

Alaa El-Banna
Bubbles aRe Us
Elizabeth, N.J.

By the numbers: More than 400 families were served, and a total of 46,000 pounds of laundry were washed across three locations.

In October 2018, Bubbles aRe Us Laundromats, along with the LaundryCares Foundation, hosted three Free Laundry and Literacy Day events simultaneously at three of our Bubbles locations in Elizabeth, N.J. Although the major focus was to offer free laundry, many other activities were held and gifts for the community were given out. We had face-painting, food, games, an ice cream truck, and story time in our new literacy space. Raffle prizes – including televisions, bikes, laundry baskets and more – were given out to some of the lucky participants.

Of course, the highlight of the event was seeing the families’ faces of joy to have such an event held in their neighborhood. As a small-business owner, I want to leverage my laundromat business to do more than just allow people to clean their clothes. I want to give back to my community and make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Hosting an event like this was a way for me to give back and bring the community together.

Although the event didn’t increase my business income all that much, it definitely opened many opportunities for me to continue to give back to my community. I’m currently working with the director of the Elizabeth Public Libraries to host monthly literacy events in my laundromats. To me, this is far more important than any financial benefit.

Adding a literacy component to the business: Elizabeth, N.J., has a very large Hispanic community, and many are recent immigrants to the U.S. They came here seeking a better education and future for their children. From personal experience, I know these parents struggle helping their children with reading and writing, since English is their second language. Having the literacy program in my laundromat gives the parents someone to help their children with reading and writing without a hefty price tag.

Advice to laundry owners considering hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day: Do it! It’s a very rewarding event and really creates a sense of community between the residents and your small business.

Laurent Broda
My Sunny Laundry
Miami Beach. Fla.

By the numbers: Approximately 200 families were served, and 25,000 pounds of laundry were washed at two locations.

We held two events the same day. We offered free laundry and free soap to everyone, along with free food including pizza and an ice cream truck. Our events also included face-painting for the kids and teachers on site who were reading to and with the children. Throughout the day, we also gave away three 55-inch televisions, two bikes and other gifts at each location.

Above all, the highlight of the day was just the joy and happiness brought by the LaundryCares team and the appreciation from the community. Everyone was so appreciative, and that was heartwarming.

We wanted to help people who need it. We wanted to lift up the community. We wanted to share good vibes with others. All in all, we wanted to give back to the people who help make our business successful and to show them how special and appreciated they are. The goal that day wasn’t to build business. A smile on a small child’s face is a lot more important than business.

Advice to laundry owners considering hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day: Be prepared to give. The smiles and gratitude you will receive in exchange for all of your efforts is worth it. Enjoy the marvelous experience with the great people of LaundryCares and with your community. This is really special.

Tommy Lau
Laundry Depot
Bayshore, N.Y.

By the numbers: In all, 188 families were served, with a total of 488 free washes.

Our LaundryCares’ Free Laundry and Literacy Day was held in August 2015. It was a lot of work to pull this event together, but only because we wanted it to be the best of everything for our community. For example, I could’ve simply offered free burgers and dogs, but I knew that everyone in the neighborhood would really appreciate good Spanish food. My thought was that the event should be more like a massive block party. I really wanted to make everyone involved with LaundryCares proud to be a part of this day.

We set up several tents for food and dining, had free coffee and Slurpees from 7-Eleven, provided free pizza and Spanish food, and hired an ice cream truck. For the kids, we had games, bounce houses, face-painting, and volunteers to read with them. In addition, the children were allowed to take home books, which were donated by the Clinton Foundation, and everyone who attended went home with a gift bag. We also raffled off televisions and bikes throughout the event.

The Free Laundry and Literacy Day was advertised on all of the local Spanish-language radio stations, and we even set up tent for the stations’ DJs to broadcast live from the store.

With regard to literacy, we set up a large tent outside with artificial turf flooring and air conditioning for the kids – it was a devoted space for reading and storytelling.

Overall, the community appreciated how hard we tried to give back, with no strings attached. We didn’t limit this event in any way – all were welcome to come eat, play and participate.

Advice to laundry owners considering hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day: I would absolutely not hesitate to do it again. My advice to other owners who are considering hosting an event is to definitely do it, but be sure to work closely with the people at LaundryCares. They’re the experts and will assure that your event is a success.

Nada and Steve Potvin
Local Laundry
Phoenix, Ariz.

By the numbers: At this event, 125 families were served, and 15,000 pounds of free laundry were washed.

We hosted a Free Laundry and Literacy Day as a way to bring the community together and to launch our new Family Read, Play and Learn space. Our guests were allowed to bring in unlimited amounts of laundry and also received free laundry products to help clean their clothes. While the guests did their laundry, their children were entertained with enrichment activities like reading and storytelling. In addition, our local NHL franchise, the Arizona Coyotes, donated a bounce house shooting gallery for the event and also gave away water bottles.

Overall, just seeing the smiles on our customers’ faces was the highlight for us. You could feel their gratitude, and we just hope they felt our gratitude for them.

We really believe this event brought us closer to our customers. The kind of one-on-one interaction you get at a Free Laundry Day is invaluable. Your customers get to put a face to a name and make a real connection with your staff, which leads to greater customer loyalty and retention.

Adding a literacy component to the business: Education is a way to change lives. Why not help and give back to the people who support our business in a way that could potentially positively change their lives? We serve many young families at our store, and making it a fun space of learning for children will benefit everyone’s future. It goes beyond the immediate – it’s a way to invest in the future of our communities.

Advice to laundry owners considering hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day: Do it! Don’t even think twice. Hosting a Free Laundry and Literacy Day really was a privilege. There were so many benefits on so many levels. The amount of support we received from the LaundryCares Foundation was above and beyond. The volunteers were there every step of the way and made organizing this event easy and fun. On the day of the event, we were blown away by the number of volunteers who flew in to help. What a truly inspiring, generous and knowledgeable group of people. We cannot place a value on how much we learned from all of these other laundry owners and industry leaders.

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