If Jim Whitmore had any doubt about the positive impact that his laundromat’s literacy program was having on the surrounding neighborhood, all uncertainty was erased one morning by the simple comment of a little girl.

“This young girl and her mother were in to do laundry, and I had just arrived at the store,” explained Whitmore, who owns Fresh Express Laundry Center in Salem, Mass. “I overhead the girl excitedly telling her mom, ‘Look, there are new books here!’

“She instantly knew the difference between the previous books that had been here and the new books that were arriving on a monthly basis. That level of attention from a child who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old was just remarkable. It showed me that the children are definitely paying attention.”

Family Read, Play & Learn

Whitmore’s store features a Family Read, Play & Learn Center from the Coin Laundry Association’s LaundryCares Foundation, which includes a starting inventory of 50 children’s books, as well as a 20-book-per-month subscription from Scholastic.

He noted that his laundromat’s dedicated literacy and learning space for kids – along with its ample library of titles for young readers – has solidified its position as a facility dedicated to true community service.

And, despite the limitations created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmore has kept the momentum rolling, continuing to provide the children who come to Fresh Express with books – safely sealed and tightly wrapped in clear plastic.

“We’ve been able to continue to support early childhood literacy in our neighborhood,” explained Whitmore, whose business serves about 250 families per week.

Prior to the pandemic, Fresh Express would host free laundry events, where local church volunteers would do laundry for the homeless and families in need – free of charge.

Since COVID-19 hit, Whitmore has found another way to give back to his community, committing to provide $50 of laundry per family for 50 families every month for a year. And, with this too, there is a literacy slant.

“There’s not much room for literacy growth if people’s basic needs aren’t being met,” he said. “It was my feeling that by helping to meet those needs, we can provide extra bandwidth for our families to consider reading and learning. This program also brings them into the laundromat so that they can pick up some new books.”

Outcomes of Giving Back

Beyond the tangible and critical benefits of getting children excited about reading and learning, the literacy program at Fresh Express also has established some intangible advantages.

“It creates a certain framework and mindset for our staff,” Whitmore revealed. “They’re proud. They’re doing more than taking care of a laundry facility. They’re taking care of their community”.

“In addition, our literacy work uniquely positions us within the market. We’re not just there to vend water and gas for laundry purposes. We’re there to have a positive impact on the whole neighborhood. We’re not just trying to see how many quarters we can peel out of their pockets. It sends a fresh message to the residents of the community.”

Whitmore recognizes that some owners may be hesitant to forfeit valuable real estate within their stores to make room for children’s books and designated reading areas. To those operators still on the fence about supporting LaundryCares and early childhood literacy, he offers this compelling message:

“My support of childhood literacy and other LaundryCares initiatives has proven to be a very convenient, low-cost investment that reaps ongoing tangible benefits for my business – and more. By enhancing the quality of life for our customers and their families, we’re generating the best kind of visibility and goodwill for the store. The positive community response has motivated our staff to be more engaged with our customers. And, for me, my store now provides not only financial rewards, but also a greater level of personal fulfillment and purpose than I could ever have imagined. It turns out that ‘making a difference’ really provides a sustainable and positive business, staff and community impact!”

Bob Nieman serves as the Editor for PlanetLaundry magazine. Read the story, “Impacting the Community: Massachusetts Owner Gives Back to His Neighborhood Through Childhood Literacy Offerings” in the March 2021 edition.

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