The days of bored kids hanging out in front of the TV at Detroit’s Fit and Fold laundromat could be over.
Now, there are books for kids to read — and take home — near the washing machines. There are computers stocked with educational software. And, a few times a week, there’s a picnic table in the parking lot where instructors read to children and work with them on their writing skills.
“This is good for everyone,” said Aaron Eley, 31, who was washing clothes inside the Fit and Fold in the city’s North End neighborhood on a recent evening as his children — Christian, 10, Ma’Kayla, 6 and Aaliyah, 2 — sat with instructors at the table outside.
“It’s good for the parents. They get to wash the clothes,” he said as his children played a matching game that involved finding words in books and writing them on index cards. “And it’s good for the kids. They get to learn some stuff.”
The books, the computers and the picnic table are part of a program called Wash and Learn that’s taking place this summer at three Detroit laundromats through an organization called Libraries Without Borders.
As educators increasingly recognize that teaching children during traditional school hours is simply not enough, Libraries Without Borders and its local partners have been experimenting with bringing literacy programs into people’s lives.
That includes people whose lives are too complicated to allow them to attend classes or tutoring programs at libraries or community centers. And it includes the kids from low-income neighborhoods who are more likely to lose academic ground over the summer than their more affluent peers.
“The folks who would benefit most from library programs often don’t know they exist, don’t know they’re eligible for a library card or don’t have a consistent enough schedule to go to a Tuesday 6 p.m. program every week,” said Allister Chang, Libraries Without Borders’ executive director.
Chang’s organization offers programs that help children and adults with reading, computers and other skills. It has brought pop up literacy programs to places such as train stations, hospitals, parks and street corners, testing different times and locations in different cities to see what works.
Those experiments proved that some locations were problematic, Chang said.
At the park, “you’re competing against nature at all times,” Chang said. People couldn’t see the computers if it was too bright. If it rained, the park would empty out.
At train stations or on street corners, people don’t usually hang around. “Everyone’s rushing to go somewhere else,” Chang said.
But at laundromats, people have time, they have shelter and they’re often looking for something to do.
“At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” Chang said. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”
So Libraries Without Borders started piloting Wash and Learn this summer, testing out child literacy programs at the Fit and Fold and two other Detroit laundromats — the Sunshine Laundry Center in Southwest Detroit and the Coinless Laundromat on the city’s west side.
In New York City, the organization piloted an adult Wash and Learn program, helping people create digital resumes and apply for jobs online at a laundromat in the Bronx.
“We’re talking about equal opportunity here,” Chang said. “After school and over summer vacations, we find in the data that wealthier families are able to send their kids to continue doing more literacy-developing activities than children from low-income families.”
Some studies show that households in low-income neighborhoods have just one book for every 300 children — far less than in wealthier neighborhoods.
“Isn’t that terrifying?” Chang asked. “We know how just having access to reading materials outside of school can help make sure that you develop a vocabulary over the year and we know how much that affects graduation rates and job employability.”
Wash and Learn aims to change that, which is why books are available at the laundromats for children to take home, whether or not the instructors are present. It’s why the computers are available whenever the laundromats are open.
And when the program is in session, instructors work one-on-one or in small groups with kids, helping them with whatever they need. On a recent night, that included a one-year-old who was just learning to connect with books, older children who were practicing their writing skills and several kids who wanted to spend time on the computers.
So far, the program has been a big hit at the Fit and Fold, said Justin Johanon, who manages the laundromat.
The Fit and Fold has always had exercise equipment available for adults to use while they wait for their clothes to get clean, but there wasn’t much for kids, Johanon said.
“Their parents would plop them down and they would hang around, doing nothing,” he said.
Now, he said, kids are taking the free books and using the computers even on days when the the instructors aren’t there. “It’s awesome,” he said.
The North End neighborhood has been surrounded by dramatic change in Detroit. Less than a mile to the south is the New Center neighborhood, where developers are building expensive new condo buildings and where the new QLINE train picks up commuters to deliver them downtown.
Nearby to the north, the price of historic mansions in the Boston Edison neighborhood has been climbing.
But the blocks around the laundromat are filled with families who have struggled for years, Johanon said. Right next to the laundromat is an apartment building that’s home to many children whose parents have trouble making ends meet.
“No one in there has internet. No one has a computer,” Johanon said. “There’s a bunch of apartments, a bunch of kids, and no one in there has anything. A lot of people can’t afford even to do laundry.”
Johanon said he’s tried to let the neighborhood know that kids can come to the reading program even if their parents aren’t washing clothes.
“I just care about what’s happening in the neighborhood,” he said.
It is that enthusiasm from laundromat owners and employees that has been the best part of the program so far, said Stacy Lorne, the Wash and Learn Detroit program coordinator.
“They take such pride in this program and such excitement,” Lorne said. “They’re bringing the kids to the computers when we’re not there and they’re making sure they know how to use the technology to get the kids logged on.”
One Detroit laundromat owner gave her $150 to buy snacks for kids, she said. Another printed flyers to help spread the word.
The Wash and Learn pilot program will end later this month but Libraries Without Borders has signaled that it plans to extend and expand the program, serving kids after school and on weekends once the school year begins. Local community partners say they, too, are invested for the long haul.
Wash and Learn “was their idea but we see the benefit so we’re going to keep this here,” said Cindy Eggleton, whose Brilliant Detroit organization is the local partner at the Fit and Fold and Sunshine laundromats.
Brilliant Detroit has family centers focused on families with kids aged 0-8 in several Detroit neighborhoods including one a block from the Fit and Fold. The organization sees the laundromat program as a great way to spread the word about its other programs, including a free all-day “Kids Club,” parenting classes, financial literacy classes and a teen gardening and nutrition program, Eggleton said. “It serves as a place for us to meet neighbors and if they want to come for more, they can come to the Brilliant Detroit house.”
Eggleton notes that programs that promote early childhood literacy are especially important in Michigan now that a new state law will soon require kids who can’t pass a third-grade reading test to repeat the grade.
Libraries Without Borders is encouraged by the early results from the pilot program this summer. The number of kids who have been served so far is relatively low — more than 80 children and their parents have worked with instructors at the three Detroit laundromats. Almost 100 books have been distributed, including children’s books and books geared for young adults.
But the organization sees this pilot program as a first step to possibly someday turning laundromats into places where people know they can go for help.
“This is something we are planning to take nationally,” Chang said, noting that the group soon hopes to have Wash and Learn programs in four other cities.
It just makes sense, he said. “Laundromat workers are in the local community. They care about the local families and this is also a way for them to get more business. This laundromat has programs and computers that others don’t.”