HLOL Podcast Transcripts

Health Literacy

Promoting Early Childhood Literacy through Local Laundromats (HLOL #197)

Helen Osborne: Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and author of the book Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message. I also produce and host this podcast series, Health Literacy Out Loud.

Today, I’m talking with Brian Wallace, who is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Coin Laundry Association, and also Executive Director of the LaundryCares Foundation.

This mission of the Foundation is to provide laundry services, books and literacy resources to those in need. This includes their Laundry Literacy Coalition, which is an initiative to promote early childhood literacy through America’s laundromats.

I first heard of this initiative in an article or a press release that somehow came my way. I was certainly intrigued, intrigued enough to go to their website and learn more. After seeing that, I was even more impressed.

I’m thinking that you might be interested in this topic, too. That’s why I invited Brian to be a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud.


Brian Wallace: Thank you, Helen. It’s great to be here. Looking forward to our chat.

Helen Osborne: I am, too. Laundry and literacy? That, excuse the expression, is a rather novel combination.

Brian Wallace: It’s not exactly peanut butter and jelly, is it? It’s not things you’d expect to go together.

Helen Osborne: No. But I’m intrigued. Tell us all how, why and when these connections between laundry and literacy happened.

Brian Wallace: Helen, it was a wonderful winding road that got us here. It really began with myself and a number of our industry professionals in the laundromat business. We just all were fortunate to have made a great living in this business that provides help to millions and millions of families every week by providing this essential service of clean clothes.

It starts with that typically low-income mom dropping a quarter into a washing machine, and it got us thinking about, “What’s the best way to respect, honor and support that relationship?”

We formed a foundation with, to be honest, not really an idea of how to deliver that help or manifest that aspiration. But we just jumped in and found our way toward how we can best support these communities that support us.

Helen Osborne: Brian, this world is new to me. I go to a laundromat once in a while, but I’m not a regular there. We have our own machine at home. Can you describe people who might be going to the laundromat every week? What would their lives be like? Do they come alone? Do they come with kids? What’s going on?

Brian Wallace: Sure. It’s an essential chore. It’s something that has to be done every week. I’ve often said that the neighborhood laundromat is a mirror held up to the community. If you want to see the folks that comprise your local community, go to the laundromat. You’ll find them there.

Yes, we tend to find a lot of families. This is a chore, so more hands are better. Demographically, our customers tend to be lower income folks from under-resourced neighborhoods.

There are a lot of reasons why extended families and kids would be at the laundromat, not only as extra hands but childcare is tough to come by. It’s really one of those last neighborhood meeting spaces where you might see your friends and neighbors on a regular basis.

Helen Osborne: That’s interesting. Another question: Who are the people who run the laundromats?

Brian Wallace: Entrepreneurs. These are mostly mom-and-pop entrepreneurs. It’s a very fragmented business. In other words, there aren’t major chains or franchises. Chances are the folks live near you and work near you and have invested in this small business.

We have to do our clean clothes week in and week out, in good times and bad, so it’s a very steady business. It’s not a glamorous one, but one that has been a great opportunity for small entrepreneurs.

Helen Osborne: When I do go to the laundromat, I don’t have a lot to do with the person running the place. I go in and do my thing. You’re now making a connection where it’s a much stronger bond between the two, right? Tell us about this initiative that you do.

Brian Wallace: Sure. It really began with what I came to call Free Laundry Days, which was back to that notion of, “How do I give back? How do I support the families that have supported our business?”

We started doing what was called a Customer Appreciation Event. Free laundry, free soap and food. I called it a community hug.

Helen Osborne: I like that.

Brian Wallace: We’d invite everyone in and to bring their clothes in.

Once we came across the folks at Too Small To Fail and their public awareness campaign behind early childhood learning and development . . .

Helen Osborne: That’s an organization, Too Small To Fail?

Brian Wallace: Too Small To Fail is an initiative of the Clinton Foundation, and they do amazing work.

As I was in one of these moments of aspirational connection to this foundation we started without a real mission, luckily I got a cold call from them and they said, “Are we nuts. Wouldn’t the neighborhood laundromat be a great place to connect to the children and families that need the most help, and in this particular case when it comes to early childhood development and literacy?”

Those Free Laundry Days became Free Laundry and Literacy Days where we began to distribute books and invite the local librarians to come read or other literacy advocates.

Our community hug got wider and wider, and went from free laundry service and free soap to books and referrals to other ways that those families who . . .

Sixty percent of those kids are not prepared for kindergarten. That is such an important indicator of future educational attainment and the ability to try to break free of the intergenerational poverty that can be present in these neighborhoods.

I just felt that we not only had an opportunity to help, but we had an obligation to help. That led to not just these events, but installing mini libraries, and we call them Family Read, Play & Learn Centers, that can provide that assistance every single day.

It’s really been a great combination, and as you said earlier, an odd combination, but one that has proven very effective.

Helen Osborne: Can you tell us a story? What would it be like for a person to see and be there? You have this little reading corner, right? You might have a librarian there. What’s it like? Make it vivid for us.

Brian Wallace: Sure. Laundry is a chore. Laundry is a drudgery. As much as I love my industry, I’m never going to convince people to get excited about going to the laundromat. It’s just not going to happen.

But what I’ve observed myself many times is kids walking in the front door with a sour expression, like, “Oh, boy. Here we go with the laundromat again,” to lighting up and making a beeline for those tables and chairs, that bookshelf and that little couch where we have hand puppets, magnet tiles, magnet letters and, of course, as I said, books. All of a sudden, it’s like a fish to water. It’s just a natural connection.

Often, the parents might first look at it like, “Is this free? Should I chase my kids out of there?” We just need to encourage folks to take advantage of it.

The research that we’ve done around that shows that simply making that space available can trigger a lot of literacy interactions that are positive.

We call it “activation.” It’s reaching out to a local library system or a local literacy organization and inviting them to come in and do a story time, a STEM activity or something that upcycles that downtime in the laundromat and make it more impactful, and really connecting kids that otherwise may not have access to books or that type of connection.

Helen Osborne: That is so neat. When you’re at the laundromat doing a load or two or three of laundry, you’re there for a couple of hours, so you really have the time.

Brian Wallace: You’re absolutely right. Some people ask me, “Why laundromats? Why would this work?” Number one, it’s proximity to need, meaning that often the families that we’re seeing are the families with kids that could use the most help.

There are long dwell times. That’s what the retailer industry would call it. You’re there for two hours as a captive audience, and you can either watch the socks tumble or read your phone. Why not read to your kids, engage in literacy activities or learn about other resources that are available in the neighborhood?

The other component is the recurring nature of the visit. We’re all creatures of habit, so if I take my kids and my clothes in every Thursday afternoon at 4:00, you better believe I’ll be there next Thursday, the Thursday after that and the Thursday after that.

As we’ve been able to have these regular classes, reading times or story times, we’ve found that people have adjusted their schedules to, “I’m going to do my laundry when the librarian or STEM teacher is there.”

It falls into that routine of “How do we take this otherwise downtime, or mundane time, and make it something special?” Folks have just reacted so positively.

The business owners, of course the parents and their kids, and the local literacy advocates and library systems have all really gotten excited about this. We’re ready to scale.

Helen Osborne: That sounds fabulous. I just recently saw a press release of a new program that’s going on at one of your laundromats. They used a phrase in that article I just loved: spinning laundry into learning. I just thought, “That’s beautiful.”

Brian Wallace: That’s fantastic. Who would have ever thought? Again, we’re not in an exciting business. We provide a very important service, but this is what gets people excited.

There’s nothing wrong with another phrase called “doing well by doing good.” Believe me, I’ve been blown away by how many owners in our industry have embraced this just on the very top level of “I want to help kids.” But it’s also good for business.

Not every laundromat is doing this. Not every laundromat has this stellar reputation of being a place to convene people. By doing these types of programs and connecting with the community, it’s really part of a larger trend in business of corporate social responsibility. Who would have thought it could happen at the neighborhood laundromat?

Helen Osborne: Wow. It’s fabulous. Thank you.

I welcome all the laundromat folks who want to listen to come on in and join us in health literacy. But really, our listeners tend to be people somehow involved in healthcare or delivering health messages. What can we learn from your experience about communicating our message more clearly?

Brian Wallace: There are a few things that come to mind, Helen. One is meeting families where they are.

It’s great to hold a class at the clinic or invite folks to the doctor’s office. There are a lot of awesome programs that use those venues. But when you think about the day in the life of that low-income mom and dad with childcare options being limited, maybe transportation being a challenge or working multiple jobs, doesn’t it make sense to try to find other places in the community where they already are and spending time so we can make that path toward getting help a little bit easier?

Helen Osborne: I don’t know any laundry people, but would it be okay if we go to the local laundromat and say, “We’ve got an idea here. Could we maybe work together?” Do you think that might work, that we could initiate it, too?

Brian Wallace: Why not, Helen? I could think of a few examples just off the top of my head. I know we had a member in suburban Chicago who would have regular health screenings, blood pressure screenings, at the laundromat. Of course, the local organization was thrilled to have so many families they could connect with.

I’m thinking of another laundromat in the Carolinas who was approached by a local Breast Cancer Awareness organization saying, “Hey, can we set up a table Saturday at the laundromat?” Lo and behold, they had more signups and connections with more people they’re trying to reach at the laundromat than anywhere else.

Helen Osborne: That is neat.

Brian Wallace: It’s fishing where the fish are.

Helen Osborne: That reminds me, too, in our health literacy world there are a lot of initiatives I hear about that take place at barbershops, hair salons, churches and places people go. Let’s add laundromats to that list, for sure.

Brian Wallace: Please. Absolutely.

Helen Osborne: Any other recommendations or lessons learned you’d like to share with those of us specifically communicating health messages?

Brian Wallace: I think you have to also be willing to take a risk. This was a pretty unorthodox idea that we came up with.

Helen Osborne: Sure was.

Brian Wallace: You can imagine a lot of the folks that we ran this by said, “Really? Are you sure that would work?” We said, “No, we don’t know if it’s going to work, but it’s worth trying.”

Helen Osborne: I like your attitude.

Brian Wallace: The potential to have an impact on these kids’ lives, again, I think is imperative. I think we’re duty-bound to try whatever it takes to make those connections.

There’s no more worn-out cliché than “thinking outside the box,” but we need to think outside the doctor’s office, library and some of these conventional venues and think about, “How can we connect with the people that need the most help where they are?”

Helen Osborne: That’s great. Another lesson that I can discover, and the way I discovered you, was through a press release or an article, somehow getting the attention of the local media. Is that something you go out looking for or does it come to you because this is such an unusual connection, or both?

Brian Wallace: I would say that we’ve been blessed with a lot of very positive media coverage. I think initially it’s that novelty factor or the gimmick. It just sounds like something strange.

But I think from there, the light bulb goes off, whether it’s a correspondent, a reporter or other community members that say, “That makes a lot of sense. What a great place to put books into the hands of kids. What a great place to have story times, support that literacy and create a culture that’s very supportive of that.”

The other venues that you mentioned, barbershops, nail salons, grocery stores, WIC clinics, and the list goes on, these are all places where people gather for what, in today’s world, is an extended period of time. How can we connect and provide more assistance?

I wouldn’t underestimate just the simple demonstration of care for that family or that mom walking in and looking at that bookshelf.

An anecdote or comment pops to mind. We did an installation of one of our Family Read Learn spaces in a laundromat in New Orleans, a very difficult neighborhood. One of the moms came up to us and said, “Having this space available makes me feel like my kids count.”

Helen Osborne: Wow. That’s beautiful.

Brian Wallace: The demonstration of care is enough. Then if you can build on that by having the regular story times and putting books into the hands of kids who, again, statistically do not have books in the home environment, these are things that the researchers tell us can really change that trajectory in a positive way and help those kids reach the literacy levels that are going to set them up for the rest of their lives.

Helen Osborne: That’s what we all want to accomplish.

Brian, I think that this is fantastic. I continue being your huge fan and champion, and I hope that this podcast can help spread the word, too.

Thank you for all you’re doing and also putting it into context about what we in healthcare can be doing together.

I often say that health literacy is bigger than any one person, profession or program. Indeed, this is an example of how we can all work together to make things better.

Thank you so much for being a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud.

Brian Wallace: Thank you, Helen. I appreciate your interest, and let’s all think about ways we can have an impact on our community.

Helen Osborne: Great.

As we just heard from Brian Wallace, it’s important to meet people where they are. What an effective way to communicate all of our messages. But doing this isn’t always easy.

For help clearly communicating your health message, please take a look at my book Health Literacy from A to Z. You might be especially interested in Chapter 42 that looks at the power of creative, out-of-the-box programs and ideas.

Feel free to also explore my website, www.HealthLiteracy.com, or contact me directly at helen@healthliteracy.com.

Health Literacy Out Loud podcasts come out every few weeks. You can get all the episodes automatically, for free, at www.HealthLiteracyOutLoud.com. You can also find us on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, RadioPublic, Stitcher and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Please help spread the word about Health Literacy Out Loud. Together, let’s tell the whole world why health literacy matters.

Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.

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