ITHACA, N.Y. – At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Downtown Ithaca there are worship services and Sunday school, free meals and peace ministries. And starting this month, there’s a laundromat. The church is launching a laundry program affiliated with the national Laundry Love network, which works to give people access to free, safe laundry facilities.
Loaves and Fishes has been serving free meals at St. John’s for 35 years, welcoming people regardless of faith to share in food and fellowship. The new laundry program will expand the parish house’s offerings by giving guests a chance to clean their clothes while having a meal.
“Laundry is a marker of dignity and worth, something you can do for yourself even when you can’t do much else,” said Rev. Megan Castellan, who became St. John’s rector about a year ago.
She cited a program in Kansas City, where she lived before Ithaca, that provided free laundry as a way to boost school attendance. Kids were avoiding school, administrators found, because they were embarrassed to show up in dirty clothes. When schools enlisted volunteers to do kids’ laundry while they were in class, absences fell sharply.
There are multiple barriers to laundry in Ithaca. People who are homeless or live in buildings without laundry machines might not be able to afford laundromats — which costs about $5 per load — or might not have a way of transporting their laundry there. Laundry facilities in some rental buildings, meanwhile, may be unclean or unsafe.
Castellan said St. John’s was well-positioned to offer safe, accessible facilities. Loaves and Fishes brings a steady stream of guests to the parish house and has created a welcoming environment.
“We are so lucky, in that Loaves and Fishes has established itself as a safe environment for everyone, so we can build from that,” she said.
The idea of a laundry ministry was already percolating at St. John’s before Castellan joined the parish. A pair of parishioners brought the idea to the vestry, the church’s governing body, after learning of a laundry initiative in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles program relies on existing laundromats; churches sponsor outreach events where community members can clean their clothes for free. Initially, St. John’s intended to do something similar. Castellan said local laundromats were reluctant to sign on, though.
By the time Castellan applied to take the helm at St. John’s, parish leaders were considering launching the program in-house instead. “I said sure, sounds great! Let’s have a small laundromat.”
A parishioner who owns laundromats elsewhere in the Finger Lakes region offered to donate commercial washers. Soon, a few donors provided enough funds to purchase dryers. Volunteers signed up to supervise the space, and the miniature laundromat opened its doors.
The program has hit some obstacles since launching. The first loads of laundry blew a fuse. For the time being, laundry and kitchen volunteers coordinate by walkie-talkie to make sure the dryers, dishwasher and coffeemakers aren’t running simultaneously.
Castellan has also heard that some guests have had trouble getting their laundry to the downtown facility. Many don’t have cars, and TCAT buses do not always accommodate carts; the official TCAT policy is that carts need to be folded to come onboard.
The church is raising money to upgrade the building’s electrical system as staff and volunteers take a trial-and-error approach to smoothing out other kinks. As the program’s capacity grows, though, Castellan plans to reach out to social service organizations throughout the community to serve more people.
In the meantime, she said the response from the parish and Loaves and Fishes community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It just blew me away when we announced it at Loaves and Fishes and everyone started cheering,” Castellan said. “We’ve already gotten phone calls from around the state and country from people wanting to replicate this, which is really cool.”
Featured image: The St. John’s parish house is home to Loaves and Fishes and a new laundry program. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)