This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by Flint Beat.
The nearest laundry facility to North Flint’s Good Church is technically just under three and a half miles away, but Lead Pastor Leo Robinson II rounds up.
After all, if most of your parish relies on public transportation, three and a half miles might as well be four — or 30 — when it comes to doing a load of laundry.
“There’s no laundromat in a four-mile radius,” Robinson said, standing in the church’s basement and soon-to-be affordable laundromat, Good Laundry. “Over 75 percent of our people in this area depend on public transportation, so you can only imagine taking all of your clothes, getting on the MTA to go to the laundromat to sit for three or four hours to do your laundry, and then come back on that bus route. That’s taking up most of your day.”
As a pastor, Robinson is naturally animated. He punctuates his sentence by listing each part of the laundry process with his hands. He touches his index finger on the word “clothes”; his middle finger on “go”; his ring finger on “back.”
Robinson is also meticulous. Before moving into the church building at 1034 E. Holbrook Ave., he and his wife, Mio Robinson, commissioned a study of the neighborhood so as to better understand the community Good Church planned to serve.
That study is why Robinson can so readily talk about the neighborhood’s demographics, socioeconomic position, and, in this case, relative distance to essential services.
“And let’s say you’re a single mom or a single dad: what are you going to do with the kids when you’re there?” he finished, dropping his hands altogether—a gesture of exasperation he’s seen from residents too.
Good Church is not yet two years old, but Robinson and his wife have already found themselves an integral part of their North Flint community.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Good Church participated in food distribution events at surrounding apartment complexes, and it was during that time that the couple learned of the area’s need for a laundromat.
“We started doing food because everybody during COVID was relying on the schools for food,” Robinson said, adding that the schools only offered breakfast and lunch. “So we started going into these areas to offer dinner and they were like, ‘Food is great, but we really need a place to do our laundry.’”
Robinson had never considered a nearby, affordable laundry facility could be of greater importance than dinner, but he has since learned about “hygiene poverty” — or the condition of being unable to afford hygiene products — and its effects on the Flint community.
“People are actually having to choose between clean clothes and basic needs,” Robinson said, noting that common government assistance programs, like SNAP, do not cover most hygiene supplies. “And that breaks my heart.”
So, in an effort to help all residents, not just Good Church members, who make the choice between buying food or detergent each day, Robinson and his wife set to work on building a laundry facility in the church’s basement.
Now, they’re nearly ready to welcome folks in for Good Laundry’s first spin cycles.
"It’s a big deal."
— Lead Pastor Leo Robinson II, Good Church
Aside from the inconvenience and cost, Robinson mentioned for adults, there are studies connecting limited access to clean clothes to lowered school attendance and chronic absenteeism for young people — absenteeism largely caused by bullying or lowered self-esteem.
In turn, that absenteeism can lead to lowered numeracy and literacy rates, higher levels of suspension and a higher likelihood of high school dropout — all trends school representatives have talked about with Robinson since he began work on Good Laundry.
“In our three-mile radius, we have Flint schools, Beecher schools, and also Kearsley schools,” Robinson said. “And all three schools are struggling with absenteeism… All of them say a lot of the kids aren’t coming because of their dirty clothes.”
Robinson said he spoke to social workers who said his laundry facility could help the schools out “tremendously,” so he feels an added pressure for Good Laundry to be successful.
“One counselor said that she takes kids’ clothes home herself to wash them,” Robinson said. “So I know it’s a big deal.”
Clean clothes being a “big deal” for Flint’s youth is something Linnell Jones-McKenney can attest to directly.
Jones-McKenney is the Community Outreach Director for the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village (SBEV), a converted North Flint school that offers enrichment programs in academics, athletics, and the arts for children ages five to 17.
Jones-McKenney said SBEV began its Wash and Dry program in April 2018 after staff realized that many of their student-athletes were unable to clean their clothes between practices.
“What we came to understand was that a lot of times the kids had on the same clothes,” she said. “Not only did they have the same clothes, but those clothes hadn’t been washed.”
So SBEV installed a donated washer and dryer to help provide students with clean clothes while they were onsite.
Jones-McKenney said the program offered kids new shorts and shirts to play or practice in — which they would sometimes keep — and washed those clothes between each session so every participant could start activities in a clean outfit.
“It was very successful,” Jones-McKenney said, adding that she felt the program helped SBEV’s athletes look and feel their best. “We knew that that was important to that kid. His eyes lit up when he came out of the bathroom, changed.”
But Jones-McKenney’s experience at SBEV, which has since changed its laundry program thanks to the purchase of athletic uniforms, is not a stand-alone success.
As reported by Chalkbeat, a Detroit school dealing with chronic absences implemented a laundry program in 2018 and saw a 10 percent decrease in absences and a 60 percent decrease in suspensions.
Additionally, in 2015, Whirlpool launched its Care Counts laundry program, which installs washers and dryers in schools. In its first year, Whirlpool reported that 90% of tracked students had improved attendance, and today the program is in 134 schools across 34 states.
The outside success stories are encouraging, but Robinson said it’s the personal stories he’s encountered that remind him Good Laundry will be a real help for Flint’s young people.
“We found out that there was a kid in our youth program that we have to drop off,” Robinson said. “One day he wants us to go past his house several times, so he can get dropped off last. We honor that, and ask him, ‘Why?’”
Robinson paused, remembering.
“Because he wants to ask the driver can he go to his friend’s house to wash clothes,” he said. “I see it. God keeps confirming these moments for us that we did the right thing—that we’re doing the right thing.”
"We thought we were just meeting the need, but it really became another business."
— Lead Pastor Leo Robinson II, Good Church
Though renovations for Good Laundry are nearing their final stages —water hook-ups are visible and commercial grade washers and dryers have been secured — Robinson said he’s aware there are limitations on the impact his facility can have.
“We already know the eight machines that we’re going to put in here — it’s already not going to be enough,” Robinson said.
He and his wife calculated that between the number of machines and the facility’s estimated hours of operation, having four washers and four dryers would equate to supporting a little over 100 families’ laundry needs per week.
While that seems like a significant number, Robinson said, that’s assuming an average family of three, just a week’s worth of clothing, and that the facility will be available when the families can come—which cannot be guaranteed as machines will likely need to be scheduled out to ensure equitable access.
“We thought we were just meeting the need,” Robinson said of his learnings so far. “But it really became another business.”
Robinson said that after accidentally creating a whole new enterprise, he decided to learn the laundry industry to manage it properly.
However, he realized quickly that his aims for Good Laundry were not the same as most stand-alone laundry businesses.
“I almost got shut out of the laundromat conference because I’m the only one there that’s not trying to make this huge profit,” he said with a laugh. “I just want to open up a laundromat to help people. What’s the cheapest way? And there’s no table to talk with people about that.”
Robinson said he wants to keep his laundry facility affordable for anyone who needs it, though it cannot be free because he has real costs to operate it.
“We want to be low cost,” Robinson said, noting that he has to consider utilities, like water and electricity, and labor, as the couple plans to hire two to three staff members to help run the operation.
Robinson estimates that he can achieve all of this — utilities, labor, some surprise costs — while operating at a seven percent profit, though he wasn’t set on a cost per load just yet. Nothing is quite certain until the machines start whirring.
“If I break even at the end of the day, I’m good,” Robinson said of his goal for Good Laundry. “That’s not the standard business model, but that’s what we’re doing.”
"It doesn’t have to be always churchy."
— Lead Pastor Leo Robinson II, Good Church
Robinson is hopeful to open Good Laundry by the end of June, but said he’d settle for August before students return to school.
“What I learned at the laundromat conference is that even though we’re open—let’s say we open now—for people to get the rhythm of coming here, it’s going to take about a month or two,” Robinson said. “So in order for us to impact the schools like we want to, to impact the pattern of life like we want to, we want to be open before school really gets started, so there’s enough time to establish that relationship, that trust.”
In the meantime, Robinson and his wife are working to continually secure funding through pitch competitions and their website while thinking of other ways to make Good Laundry the best facility it can be for all who use it.
Alongside the laundry area, the Robinsons are converting another portion of the church basement into a space for Good Laundry guests to wait, relax, fold clothes, or hang out.
Robinson said if that area can also be a space for learning they’ll try to help with that too.
“In those two or three hours that they will spend here, we want to have people come down and say, ‘Hey, what else do you need?’ Is it financial literacy? Is it tutoring? Is it that you want to work on your GED?” he said.
When asked if he’d do any preaching to Good Laundry guests, the Flint native laughed and said no, only if they want to come upstairs to Good Church.
“It doesn’t have to be always churchy,” Robinson said, signaling quotation marks with his hands, “churchy.”
“Spiritual health is awesome… but how can we get them to read the Bible if they can’t read?” he continued. “The average reading level is eighth grade around here, like let’s work on that. We don’t have to put a pulpit everywhere. Hopefully, our love is just showing love without a hook into it.”
Good Laundry will be located in the basement of Good Church at 1034 E. Holbrook Ave. on Flint’s north side. Robinson said they plan to continue to post progress updates on Good Church’s social media and website.
“If I can help a young kid just not have to go through the path I went through, it’s worth it,” Robinson concluded.
With that, Robinson adjusted his hoodie, “a kid from Flint” in white lettering across the chest, and went to help his wife pass out teacher appreciation gift bags at Good Church’s entrance.