If a laundromat suddenly offers free washing and drying service for one day, it’s a gift some people can’t pass up.
That was recently the case for a single dad in Tampa, who was headed for a fishing trip when he saw the sign, went back home, packed up his kids’ clothes and returned to the laundromat.
Jason Sowell, who started the free “Laundry Project” events in 2009, recalls meeting the man that day.
“He told us he’d been fighting with his sons for the past few weeks about going to school,” Sowell says. “They told him they were embarrassed to go to school because they didn’t have clean clothes. It made me realize that’s a very real thing for kids, and it broke my heart.”
As for the fishing trip, “that’s how he was going to put food on the table that night,” he adds.
Sowell and his team of volunteers have organized almost 300 Laundry Projects in various states across the country. They take over a laundromat and pay the washing and drying costs for every customer who comes through the doors. Sowell, a Tampa resident, estimates that they spend about $600 in quarters at each event, along with another $400 for detergent and other supplies.
Nicholas Cox, who owns three laundromats in the Tampa area, is proud to note that one of his facilities was “ground zero” for the first Laundry Project event.
“Jason is a young guy that is very, very socially conscious, and he wants to do something that matters to people,” Cox says. “Who would think about taking over a laundromat to do someone’s free laundry? And these are people that can really use the help.”
When people come in for free laundry for the first time, “they wonder if they’re selling something or if they’re gonna start preaching to them,” Cox adds. “They don’t do either.”
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Sowell estimates that his organization has washed almost 67,000 loads of laundry so far. He decided to start his unique mission based on one truth: “If you have to choose between buying groceries or washing clothes, groceries will always win out.
“Clean laundry is not a normal thing for everyone; it can be a luxury for some people,” he adds. “One woman who came in immediately broke down and said, ‘I got laid off about a month ago, and I’ve been saving my laundry to scale down on bills.’ She had run out of stuff to wear, so it was a huge lifesaver for her. Another lady told me, ‘Now I can pay for my daughter’s birthday party.'”
Sowell, who was a youth pastor for several years, says he realized after going on mission trips to other countries that “some neighborhoods in our own cities are just as bad off.” He then started his nonprofit, Current Initiatives, which focuses on “finding overlooked needs that people have in the community and come up with tangible, creative solutions.”
One of those solutions is the Laundry Project. Cox, for one, is impressed with their work.
“This guy has his heart in the right place,” he says of Sowell. “He’s a good dude. He reminds us all that there are people out there who need our help, and something as simple as putting quarters in a washing machine can make a huge difference to people.”