July Morales didn't know how she was going to pay for her daughter's elementary school lunch. She was planning to ask about installment payments to spread out the costs.
Working in customer service at a local auction house, she lives paycheck to paycheck as a single mother. But she wasn't looking for a handout, when she walked into the Dunedin Laundromat on a recent Saturday prepared to stuff $35 worth of quarters into commercial washing machines to ensure her 11-year-old daughter has clean clothes, bedsheets and towels.
That's why she really appreciated an unexpected surprise when volunteers from the Laundry Project asked her to use their quarters instead.
"I prefer not to, but they insisted,'' Morales says. "But my struggles are right here.'' She points to the washing machines. "I was counting my pennies to come here.''
Morales and her daughter are one of nearly 3,500 Florida families touched since 2009 by the Laundry Project
, which helps low-income families wash their clothes at laundromats.
Doing One Load At A Time
Jason Sowell wanted to do more to help. He worked as a pastor in Ybor City and decided to start Current of Tampa Bay
, a nonprofit designed to help others.
Current funds initiatives such as the Hope for Homes Project, Affordable Christmas and the Laundry Project.
Sowell came across the idea for the Laundry Project from Just One, a California group that started Laundry Love to help the homeless in Los Angeles wash their clothes.
"I thought that's brilliant,'' Sowell says. "We should be doing that everywhere.''
Sowell first started offering free laundry in Sulphur Springs in 2009. The Project helped 120 families the first year and has grown each year, serving 1,100 families in 2013.
"When we first started, we just showed up and surprised people,'' Sowell says. "We had no signage to bring validity or credibility.''
Over the years, the Project has developed a better system but Sowell still calls it "organized chaos.'' There is little advertising, save from some flyers that are handed out in neighborhoods or posted in laundromats. For the most part, people find out about the projects through word of mouth, Sowell says.
"I didn't fully understand the burden that [doing laundry] can be for lower income families,'' Sowell says. "A lot of them really are choosing between buying groceries or washing their clothes.''
Now the Project makes up to 50 stops a year, Sowell says. The places they visit are selected based on need and suggestions from other groups that also provide different forms of assistance.
Paying It Forward
About 25 volunteers from Grace Church of Dunedin
showed up to help with the Laundry Project at the Dunedin Laundromat
. Daniel Chavez, a member of the church, worked with Sowell to bring the project there.
Doughnuts, bananas, coffee and orange juice were set up on a table outside the laundromat door. Inside, bottles of Purex, Tide, Downy and other detergents and fabric softeners were placed on top of each washing machine.
Ira Lockhart, 52, who has worked with Sowell since the beginning, helped oversee the Dunedin event while Sowell was directing a similar event in Jacksonville.
"You can take that money you were going to spend and take your kids to dinner,'' Lockhart tells Morales as she starts to unload her baskets of clothes. "If you need help carrying it in, we can do that also.''
Volunteers set Morales up on five Speed Queen triple load commercial washing machines. The laundry help provided Morales a sense of relief. She worked all week while her daughter was on Spring Break. The worry of how to pay for her daughter's lunch dissipated.
Morales folds laundry and gets ready to load up her car and leave.
"Maybe we'll do something today,'' she says with a smile.
Jared Leone is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. He writes about all things Tampa Bay. Follow him @jared_leone on Twitter. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.