Battle Creek

Laundry Love: Finding community and dignity at a Battle Creek laundromat

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Folding clothes with customers as she stands near drying tables at Finish Line Laundry, Deacon Trish Harris, with St. Thomas Episcopal Church, says she makes the types of connections she wouldn’t make otherwise.
“Women tell me about violent relationships they’ve been in. This seems to happen over a drying table and that’s when these things naturally come out,” Harris says of these and other conversations. “As a result of the pandemic, people are so lonely. There’s a growing number of older folks who live by themselves and don’t have people they can talk to.”
These opportunities to connect are an unexpected byproduct of the real reason for Harris’ presence at the laundromat at 10 North 20th Street.
Pictured from left to right in back are Elsie Gibson, Schellie Caswell, Conor Caswell, Joddie Nobilit. In front is Genette Vinson.In late September with the support of St. Tom’s, Harris and a group of volunteers that she assembled began offering people in the community the opportunity to do their laundry for free. Known as St. Thomas Laundry Love, people can come into the laundromat most Tuesdays to do their laundry during shifts that alternate each Tuesday between 9 a.m. to noon or 4 p.m. to 7 p.m to do their laundry. 
The program is focused on those who are “struggling to make ends meet,” Harris says. There are no forms to fill out or information collected.
“There are people who have asked me, ‘How do you know if I meet the qualifications?’ I just tell them that the program is geared towards low-income individuals. We want them to know that ‘We see you as an important person and we’re coming to you with love.”
The Laundry Love program in Battle Creek is modeled after a national Laundry Love program which was founded in 2003 in Oregon by T-Bone (Eric) and Gary Russinger. In the 20 years it has been around, more than 1.5 million people have been served at one of more than 30,000 laundromats, including Finish Line, that partner with Laundry Love.
Pictured from left to right are Joddie Noblit, Trish Harris, Karen Keese, and Jeanne Grabe.“This is a great opportunity to help people out,” says Kimberly Bagley, Finish Line Manager. “We just offer the space and Trish and her group do everything else.”
In addition to its 20th Street location, Finish Line has three other locations in Battle Creek and two in Kalamazoo. Bagley says she has received inquiries about Laundry Love from staff at the Kalamazoo stores.
“There was a customer at the Cork Street location in Kalamazoo who was asking my daughter, who works there, about it and the lady drove out here to join the program offered here. She lives in Climax so this was closer for her,” Bagley says.
As an unhoused individual living in Ventura, California, T-Bone says he was asked by someone “How can we come alongside your life in a meaningful way?”  His response was honest and practical. “If I had clean clothes I think people would treat me like a human being.”
The Laundry Love initiative consists of regular opportunities to come alongside people who are struggling financially by assisting them with their laundry, according to information on its website.
“Laundry Love partners with groups and local laundromats in cleaning clothes and linens of low-income or no-income families and person(s). We see the laundromat as a place where strangers become friends, people are known by name, hope is hustled, and the worth of every human being is acknowledged and celebrated.”
Pictured on back row from left to right: Deacon Trish Harris, Schellie Caswell, Joddie Nobit, Jeanne Grabe. Seated is Sharon Engle.Harris says she was looking for a ministry for St. Tom’s when she came across information about Laundry Love. She applied for and received a $10,000 grant in August from the Bishop Whittemore Foundation through the Episcopal Church which covers the cost of the washers and dryers used by those participating in the local Laundry Love. They can do up to four loads of laundry. Some use one machine which can accommodate four loads of laundry at one time while others use two machines that can accommodate two loads each, Harris says.
Besides the grant, Harris has received monetary donations from St. Tom’s and its congregants. She also recently received a check for $30 from a dentist in Jackson.
In addition to covering the cost of each load, laundry detergent which resembles a dryer sheet is provided, as are snacks.
Since the first session in September, the number of people using the Laundry Love program has tripled. In her Annual Report Harris says, “The St. Thomas Laundry Love has met for ten sessions. We assisted 331 guests and the children, spouses, and friends that accompanied them. Guests washed items for a total of 751 people. The total number of loads completed during the first ten sessions: 1,203.”
“December 5 was our busiest session so far,” she says. “We had 56 guests and oftentimes they had one or two or three people with them, mostly their children. They did a total of 209 loads — it was hopping.”
Despite the influx of people and the demand for the 58 washers and 68 dryers inside the 8,000-square-foot building, Harris says, “Not one person gave us a hard time. They were extending grace to one another. That’s amazing to me, but they do look out for one another.”
The majority of Laundry Love participants come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Those who live farther away take a city bus or are transported by local agencies to Finish Line.
Pictured from left to right: Joddie Noblit, Emilie Cummins, Jeane Grabe, Conor Caswell, Schellie Caswell, Deacon Trish Harris. Seated is Bev Chase.Harris says these people will share stories with her about how long they’ve had clothes in the bags they carry with them to be washed.
“It costs maybe $15 for them to wash and dry their clothes. That’s not a lot, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. This is a reminder to me that people are just really trying to scrape by,” she says.
Bagley says it’s not unusual for people to save up their money and come in once a month to do their laundry.
“They’ll tell me they come in once a month and use all of their money to clean their clothes. A lot of people get paid once a month and they use the Laundry Love program to get extra laundry like bedsheets and comforters done and then use their own money to do their regular laundry..”
When asked what it says to her that people are struggling to have clean clothes, Bagley says, “I’ve been with the company for 20 years and I’ve thought about this for 30 years.”
“So many people are struggling just to make ends meet,” Harris says. “The really lovely part about this is that people are there for a couple of hours. They’re building community and sharing their stories with each other.”

For more information about Laundry Love or to sign up to volunteer, contact Harris at (269) 274-6180.

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.