At the end of September, Greta Hardina, family liaison for Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, was eagerly awaiting the arrival of what she had spent months campaigning to see in her school: a set of new laundry machines.
The machines are the centerpiece of a laundromat program that was just launched in two Cambridge public schools: CRLS and Cambridge Street Upper School. The program seeks to provide laundry access to low-income students, and life-skills support to students with disabilities. Despite a slow start in its first month of implementation, the machines are now in active use, nestled between shelves of cleaning supplies, donations, and blue mesh bags filled with clothing waiting to be washed.
Hardina was originally inspired to incorporate laundromats into the schools when she read a New York Times article detailing how a school in Newark, N.J. established a similar program as an initiative to improve attendance rates. Half of the students attending CRLS come from low-income families, Hardina notes. “One of the reasons why [these students] stay home is because they don’t have clean clothes to wear to school, or they wear clothes to school that smell and they get bullied,” she explains.
In 2019, Hardina brought her idea to the city of Cambridge’s Participatory Budget program, which allocates $1 million annually for community members to spend on one-time capital project ideas. Her proposal got the number one vote. A $50,000 budget was granted to put laundromats in CRLS and CSUS.
The pandemic delayed the project, but also reaffirmed its value. Many students at CRLS live in public housing, and during the pandemic, Hardina often delivered gift cards for food and laundry to them. She said that students and their families were always excited to receive laundry gift cards — that’s when she knew a program like this would work.
“We’ve always been providing food and hygiene products, but laundry is something really needed,” Hardina says, with a smile in her eyes. “I’m really happy with the outcome and want to keep working in that direction to get more accessible laundry services.”
In addition to assisting low-income students, the laundromat program plays the dual role of providing life-skills training to students with disabilities. The laundromat is part of the vocational and independent living curricula at CRLS, designed to provide students with various disabilities training in essential life skills — one of these being learning how to do laundry. Jenna S. Callahan, a transition specialist for students with disabilities at CRLS, highlighted that students working the laundromat are also earning money.
“All of our students with disabilities have the experience and the chance to learn different jobs and get money to get paid for the work that they’re doing,” she says.
Callahan and Sasha M. Featherspoons, a fellow transition specialist, have spent the last month setting up work shifts and schedules for students working in the laundromats. They’ve created informational tools, including written guides and videos for non-readers, designed to train students on how to use the machines. Some of the students’ main responsibilities are washing the donated clothes Hardina receives for low-income students (Hardina says they’re currently seeking donated sweatshirts and sweatpants), washing their own clothes, and learning how to manage a laundromat.
Featherspoons and Callahan both hope the laundromat will serve to spread the word about the work that they do. “People don’t know that our program exists,” Featherspoons stresses. She imagines the program could have a snowball effect, creating more visibility for the need for work experience in the Cambridge community for students with disabilities.
Looking to the future, Callahan envisions the laundromat could grow into a “mini-apartment” of sorts. The room already has a sink, and the specialists are hoping to install a stove soon. It could become a life skills classroom in which students can learn and practice a variety of skills beyond just laundry.
Hardina notes that the laundromat is “so popular now” that the city is proposing they expand it, either to the first floor of the school or at a different building, to make it more accessible to the larger community, a move Hardina celebrates.
“My hope is to destigmatize poverty, and make it normalized to have a washing machine and dryer in a school,” she says. “These services are just part of life.”