An Interview with The Laundry Project’s Jason Sowell

Jason
Sowell founded Current of Tampa Bay in 2008. It’s a non-profit
organization dedicated to helping meet the needs of low-income
communities.

Sowell is a former youth pastor and executive pastor in the Tampa area.

“That role dealt a lot with people and their problems,” Sowell
explained. “We spent a lot of time going to other countries. We would do
things like handing out Bibles and building churches, which are all
great things. However, I started to realize that neighborhoods here were
struggling just as badly as some of the countries we were going to, and
we weren’t doing anything for those communities.

“For me, the other issue was that, although it was great that we gave
away Bibles, I always walked away thinking that they people there still
didn’t have clean drinking water. It was things like this that pushed me
into thinking more in terms of how I could help in our own cities with
issues that people really struggle with on a daily basis, real needs.”

Current of Tampa Bay focuses on three major initiatives: Affordable
Christmas, which is a family shopping event to empower low-income
families by helping them provide a fun Christmas for their children
through selling new, unused gifts at an affordable cost; Hope For Homes,
which provides renovation work on homes owned by working-class
families; and The Laundry Project.

Please explain The Laundry Project and its mission.

The Laundry Project is an initiative that meets the basic need of
washing clothes and linens at laundromats to help people with that
financial burden. The goal is to relieve a little bit of that burden.
It’s one of those needs that everyone has, no matter what our
socioeconomic status – we all need clean laundry, and we all get the
same feeling of dignity from it.

Although the goal is to relieve that financial burden, in a larger sense
we want people to find hope through that and to let them know there is a
community of people who care about them with no strings attached. It’s
not solving every problem they have, but hopefully it’s giving them a
bit of hope to carry on to the next day and to connect them to someone
else who can help in another way.

How did this initiative get started?

I started my organization in 2008. And, in early in 2009, I was in
California with some friends of mine; they were working with homeless
people, helping them get to a laundromat to wash their clothes – and
that’s what really inspired me. They called their program Laundry Love.

However, I didn’t want to offer it only to the homeless. So, after I
returned to Tampa, we held our first free laundry event sometime in

mid-2009. I just picked a laundromat in a low-income area I was familiar
with. It was an unattended, open-air, 24-hour store. I tried to contact
the owner, but I couldn’t find any information. So we just went over
there and did it. I assumed that whoever owned this store would hear
about it, and we’d either get a phone call telling us to stop, or else
they’d be OK with it.

And that’s how it started. We didn’t have any plan or structure in
place. I just gathered up a couple of our board members and some college
students, got a box of quarters and just did it. Years later, it’s
obviously a whole different thing, but that’s how it got going.

Why laundry?

When people want to help the poor and the homeless, most of them
automatically think of providing food or shelter. So, there are plenty
of services out there for that. I tried to think of what else people in
those dire scenarios need for which there is no help – and laundry was
one of those things.

The first couple of events we held, we had families say to us, “Nobody
does this. There is no help. We never get to do our laundry.” And I just
fell in love with it. I thought that, if we can do nothing else to help
people, at least we can do this.

How many free laundry events have you held?

Thus far, we’ve held 192 projects. Most of them have been in Tampa and
Ohio; however, we’ve also held them in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas and
Austin, Texas.

Do you have any idea how much laundry you’ve done since founding The Laundry Project?

Since 2009, we’ve done 43,400 loads of laundry, and we’ve helped nearly 5,000 families.

The day before the Clean Show in Atlanta this past April, you
held free laundry events at three stores in three separate neighborhoods
– Sun Cleaners and two Tropical Breeze laundry locations, all in
downtown Atlanta, hosted the events. Can you elaborate on those recent
projects?

Those
events were hugely successful. The nice thing about that project, which
was different for us, was that all of the volunteers were from the
laundry business – so they knew the drill in the laundromat, which was
great.

The network of people there was great – from the three owners who
stepped up to the CLA’s LaundryCares Foundation, which pooled its
resources to help us.

The customers in Atlanta were so thankful. In fact, at one of the
locations, some of the customers went to a dollar store next to the
laundromat and bought thank-you cards for all of the customers to sign,
and then gave them to the owner of the laundromat and the volunteers.

Another location was so busy that it was almost overrun. They almost
couldn’t keep up with the volume. Overall, it was a fantastic day. We
did 1,200 loads in three hours; that works out to about 130 families
served, or approximately 400 to 500 individuals that day.

We love surprising people. We like to just show up, because it’s a
little more meaningful when they don’t know it’s coming. And what
happens all the time is customers who are there will start calling their
friends and family… “Hey, you have to get over here!”

Can you walk me through a typical Laundry Project event?

An event is three hours long. We typically hold them on Saturday
mornings, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Depending on how large the location is,
we use anywhere from 10 to 20 volunteers.

We have people at the door to greet customers to explain to them what
we’re doing, and we also post signs outside that read: “Today Your
Laundry is Free, courtesy of The Laundry Project.”

The
onus is on the customers to wash their clothes. We don’t do it for
them. But we have people stationed throughout the laundromat and their
responsibility is to assist the customers. We’ll put the quarters into
the machines for them. If they need soap, we’ll help with that. We get
the machines running for them.

Then, once they have their laundry started and going, it’s really just
about hanging out with them and having some good conversations with them
– just giving them some love and some hope. Of course, we also have
coloring books and crayons for the kids, as well as coffee, doughnuts
and water. Essentially, we turn a laundromat into a community center for
a few hours.

On average, during the three-hour timeframe, we typically serve anywhere
from 30 to 40 families and do about 250 to 300 loads of laundry.

How do you choose the neighborhoods in which you hold your events?

We typically look for neighborhoods where the demographics reflect a lot
of low-income families. That’s usually the starting point.

However, at times, local businesses, churches or laundromat owners will
contact us about holding an event in their area. In such cases, we may
host projects in areas that maybe we typically wouldn’t, but because
there is group of people there that want to help that particular
community, we’ll do it.

How do you choose the laundries that host your events?

The owner and the store is a big deciding factor for us. We’re big on
building relationships with the owners who host our events and knowing
that the owners are good businesspeople, and that they care about the
community and their business.

Usually, I can walk into a laundromat and, within the first few seconds,
tell what kind of owner it has. I know laundromats are hard to keep
clean and maintained; however, you can definitely tell the difference
between one or two machines being out of service but the place generally
being in good order, and a store that is just plain dirty and
neglected.

In fact, I’ve actually rejected laundries that were probably prime
locations in their areas and went to smaller, less-known parts of those
communities, because the owners of the bigger ones just weren’t people I
wanted to work with. It’s more of a feel – how they are when we meet
with them.

What is required of a laundry owner who decides to host a Laundry Project event?

The only thing we ask of the laundry owners is that they let us use
their store and that they’re there or they have someone there during the
project who can fix things if something goes wrong – and, of course,
that they have as many of their machines working as possible.

We don’t ask them to donate money. We don’t ask them to lower their
prices while we’re there. I want them to make money, because it’s a
small business and because, if they die, that doesn’t help the
neighborhood at all.

Some owners will go above and beyond by voluntarily donating time or
items, but I go in saying, “Hey, the only thing we’re asking is to let
us do it here. Partner with us in the sense that you’re committed to it –
either you’re here or your employees are here helping us make it
happen.” And that’s it.

Where do you find volunteers to work these events?

We get volunteers from everywhere – churches, community groups and so
on. Often, small businesses will sponsor projects; they’ll make it a
volunteer day for their business.

We also have long-time customers at some of these laundromats who will
step in and volunteer. After a few events at a particular laundromat,
the people in the community get to know you. So, when we show up, it’s
neat to see families who are their helping us set up signs and bring
other people’s laundry in, while they’re getting helped themselves.

I want to point out that it’s not a religious thing. It’s not about
trying to send that kind of message. What I love about the broadness of
that is I’ve literally watched a pastor and a guy professing atheism
standing side by side at a laundromat, pumping quarters into a machine
together and actually talking about religion – but in a very
non-threatening way because they’re both on equal ground at that point.

I’m sure you’ve heard a number of heart-tugging stories from
customers at these events over the years. Do any anecdotes come to mind?

At one of the first events we did, an older woman pulled up in her
pickup truck. She had her adult son with her, who was living on the
streets, and she brought him there to do his laundry. I approached them
and explained what was going on, and she didn’t believe me.

Finally, she said, “Wow, there really are nice people in the world.” To
which I thought, we’re just paying for your laundry. How rough has life
been that something this simple and this small could elicit that type of
response? That was in 2009, and I’ve never forgotten it. She was
profoundly affected by that.

Another time, in Florida, a single dad came in with his two sons. He was
driving by with a friend to go fishing to get food, and he saw our
signs outside the laundromat. He had his friend take him back home, got
his laundry and returned to the store. He told us how he had been
fighting with his sons all week to go to school; they didn’t want to go
because they were embarrassed by not having any clean clothes to wear.

As it turned out, the dad’s choice at that time was either buying
groceries for the family or doing laundry. And, when he came in, all he
had were a couple of outfits for his sons for the week. We said, “Go
home and bring back all of your laundry. That’s why we’re here.” That
really hit me as to how big of a deal clean clothes are for kids going

to school and for their self-esteem.

What types of marketing support do you provide laundry owners who host your events?

We market the events within the laundromat. We usually promote to
customers who are in the store already, and we let word of mouth take it
from there.

In a larger sense, from a business standpoint, we send out press
releases and do media outreach for those particular projects and
communities – and the laundromat is obviously a part of that.

They do get recognition. For instance, with our recent Atlanta event,
those stores all received recognition through a news story in the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

What does the future hold for The Laundry Project?

There are a lot of ideas we have rolling around. We’re looking at
developing a mobile washing unit. We’re working on a food-truck-size
vehicle that we can take to places like smaller homeless shelters or
low-income communities where we can park and help wash clothes there.

Another idea I’m really passionate about is opening a laundromat in a
lower-income community that’s more than just a laundromat. In addition
to just housing a laundromat, it also could serve as a community center,
with job trainers, financial planners, tutors and so on. It could
include a series of rooms connected to the laundromat space and could
literally function as a community center, specifically for job training
and educational tutoring.

One thing I’ve learned is that laundromats in low-income communities are
sort of the equivalent to what a Starbucks is within an upwardly mobile
community. It’s that hang-out space. So, we’re trying to help the
community in that space?

How can laundry owners become part of The Laundry Project?

Simply contact us through our website – laundrybycurrent.org.

What one take away would you like laundry owners to get from reading this interview?

Laundry is more than just laundry. Laundry owners have a prime
opportunity to better their communities simply by virtue of owning
laundromats. It is a natural space in which communities can be helped –
the laundry business has a unique opportunity to help communities in
ways that other businesses can’t.

So, think about how you can use your business, not just to provide the
service of clean laundry, but how you can bring dignity and hope into
the community in which your store is located.#Public #PlanetLaundry #FeaturedArticle #Article

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