With a bubble machine on the roof, the new South Memphis Alliance laundromat and resource center opened Wednesday, April 3, at 1044 S. Bellevue Blvd.
Construction on the new “Social Suds” laundromat began last year in Soulsville. The old laundromat building was gutted and revamped and opened this week by the South Memphis Alliance as a laundromat that is also an entry point for seeking social services.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
What is being called “Social Suds” is an overhaul of an old laundromat at the location on the eastern boundary of the Soulsville neighborhood combined with small meeting areas and space for social services agencies to offer access to their services.
The SMA offices are just across a small parking lot.
Alliance executive director Reginald Milton came up with what at first seems an unorthodox combination as he watched from his offices as people came to wash and dry clothes in the laundromat.
When the laundromat closed and there were tentative plans to locate a nightclub in the building, the alliance bought it and he began rounding up the money for the project.
“The poor are busy people. They are working all the time,” Milton explained. “They don’t have free time. Don’t stop them and say, ‘I need to stop you to provide services.’”
But a laundromat involves about a half hour of wait time and Milton estimated those who don’t have washers and dryers where they live would visit a laundromat an average of 32 times a year providing the repetition needed to make prevention type services work.
“We have a wonderful nation but we are too focused on critical care. You have a heart attack, you could not have a heart attack in a better country,” he said. “But when it comes to trying to help you get away from that McDonald’s cheeseburger, we can’t do that. We’re not there.”
The South Memphis Alliance specifically works in the area with foster children as well as young mothers and families with mentoring services and access to social services. In that role, Milton said there are times when he realizes there isn’t much the specific help he offers can help reverse the harm already done.
“We try to do our very best work. But we get people we can’t help and we know it,” he said. “I’m trying to teach a mother how to do her checkbook when her boyfriend is beating her up when she goes home. Really, am I helping her? And I know it.”
Milton approached the Assisi Foundation of Memphis Inc. with a draft of his plan written out and not expecting to get the funding.
“A small project could be a pain to a city if it’s not working right,” he said, acknowledging a risk. “The scandal of it failing would be terrible and it made me take a step back.”
Milton has been outspoken about the realities of running a nonprofit. And one of the realities, he said, is a great tendency to play it safe when it comes to ideas.
“One nonprofit comes up with an idea and everybody else does the exact same thing,” he said.
With his novel idea, Milton got funding from the Assisi Foundation as well as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the city’s Housing and Community Development division.
And Milton reached out to other nonprofits to become part of the services offered.
On the steel folding tables of the laundromat were copies of the book “Wonder,” by R. J Palacio, signifying Literacy Mid-South is part of the effort across a number of social issues.
The book has been selected by the organization as its 2013 book of choice.
Literacy Mid-South executive director Kevin Dean acknowledged the pitfalls of nonprofits including the challenge of sustaining programs once they are launched.
“You get something started and it doesn’t last,” he said. “Another thing that organizations struggle with is meeting people where they are.”
Social Suds is the first of several pieces of a plan to gear services and the efforts more toward prevention as Soulsville rebuilds.
Across Bellevue, the site of an old dairy plant has been cleared of the 1930s-era structure for future construction of the SMA Center of Families and Children. The alliance is about to launch a capital campaign to raise the funds for the building.
The center would represent an eastern gateway or entry point to the Soulsville area. On the western end, First Tennessee Bank donated a former branch location on South Third Street that SMA intends to refurbish and use as a resource center specifically for teenagers and young adults.