On a dark Thursday earlier this month, Cindy Draper sat on a wooden bench in the 20th Avenue Laundromat in Longview, hunched over a floral coloring book.
“I got my gel pens and my sharpies,” she said with a hand on a magenta pencil case. “This is my therapy so I’ll take it wherever I go.”
Draper, 56, was patiently biding her time as all of her clothes tumbled nearby. She used to color with students when she worked as an instructional assistant in Seattle, she said. But now she lives in a homeless camp near the Longview U-Haul along Oregon Way.
On the third Thursday of every month, Draper packs her tent and all of her possessions into her “stroller” and walks 20 minutes to the laundromat to wash her clothes for free. The event, hosted by a charitable organization, new to Longview, called Laundry Love, is Draper’s only opportunity to wash her clothes, she said.
“My being homeless, laundry collects fast,” she said. “This event helps me out tremendously.”
But Laundry Love is about more than just saving quarters and clean clothes. It’s about retaining personal dignity. It’s about successful job and housing searches. It’s about meeting people from a mix of social classes once a month.
Laundry Love is a 12-year-old national organization that creates opportunities for low-income and homeless people to wash their clothing. The initiative, however, relies on laundromats to donate their facilities and volunteers to organize the events.
The local chapter in Longview has operated for 16 months. Steve Hughes said he approached the 20th Avenue Laundromat at the end of 2016 to host the free laundry event. He and his wife, Karen, had moved to Kalama the year before and wanted to volunteer in the community, he said.
“For people who are on the edge with their finances, it costs a lot to do laundry. We spend about $12 per family for three loads,” Steve Hughes said. “We’re hoping that this allows them to apply their personal funds to other needs they have.”
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Laundromat co-manager Merry Lloyd said she was happy to donate use of their facilities for the cause.
“It’s just a really neat way to give back and you can really see it happening,” she said. “We can see people leave with clean clothes and a smile on their face.”
60-year-old Kelso resident Harry Vilante said laundry has helped him make ends meet as the cost of living has increased.
“This is a small town. We could do much more to help each other,” he said. “I want people to take advantage of this (opportunity).”
From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month, about 25 individuals or families flock to the laundromat to wash their clothes. The service is first-come, first-serve and the organizers do not ask for any proof of need, Hughes said. They only ask for a name so they can tell the client when their clothes are ready.
Hughes said the program budgets about $300 for each month to cover quarters for the machine. Detergent and dryer sheets are all donated from local charities and churches. Longview Foursquare Church, located across the street, opens its doors to participants to use their restrooms and get a snack.
The laundromat remains open to regular customers throughout the two-hour event, so volunteers place stickers on the machines that participants are using. The volunteers also put the quarters in the machines for the clients.
Scott and Samantha Amren said they were moved to volunteer with Laundry Love after hearing about the group when it received a $20,000 donation from the 100 Women Who Care Lower Columbia Chapter.
“So many needs are taken care of, but laundry … doesn’t usually get addressed with homelessness,” Samantha Amren said.
Scott Amren said he has learned that the local homeless community is tight-knit. He tried to offer a granola bar to Draper last month, but she told him she already had one and that he should give the snack to someone else who needs one.
“(Homeless people) have needs, but they’re not selfish,” he said.
Hughes said about 80 percent of the people who attend free wash Thursdays are regulars. He’s developing a rapport with some of them, including Shirley Baker, whom he greets with a warm hug.
Baker, 58, said she has washed her clothes with Laundry Love for five months. She helps out whenever she attends.
“This brings the community together by helping one another,” she said. “People get to learn about each other and grow.”
Laundromat co-manager Lloyd said volunteers and participants come from all walks of life.
“It’s more than just come in and throw your clothes in a washer,” she said. “It’s a chance for people to get to know each other better. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”
Isabel Garcia, 23, said even though she has a job, it can be difficult to provide for her three young children. So every dollar saved helps.
“We may look good at work but the economy isn’t good,” she said. “Sometimes someone on a tight budget might look good, but nobody ever really knows.”
Hughes said clean clothes can be vital for work opportunities.
“If you have someone in economic distress and they’re trying to have appointments with case managers … if they don’t have clean clothes, they might be more likely to skip that or not be in a positive place at those meetings,” he said.
He added that studies have found that many truant students skip school because they don’t have clean clothes to wear.
To help address that need, the organization recently purchased three washing machines and three dryers for St. Helens and Kessler elementary schools. Hughes said a school liaison will be in charge of communicating with families that may need help with laundry.
Laundry Love has spent about $4,000 during its 16-month existence. Hughes said he expects current funding to last about four years if the organization continues to operate the same way.
The goal is to keep the service consistent instead of expanding too quickly and risking running out of money.
“It would be great to provide more locations, but I feel like I need to be responsible with these donations,” Hughes said.
The event is already gaining popularity. Draper said she arrived too late for the January free wash and ran out of time to wash her clothes before the event ended.
But for this month, at least, Draper said she will feel clean.
“I like coming here because everyone is friendly,” Draper said. “They don’t make me feel like I’m below them. They are truly friends.”