Washers and dryers swished and hummed in the background as a full house packed Soulard Soap Laundromat & Cleaners on a Thursday afternoon.
Sister Jackie Toben, SSND, leaned over to listen to a frail, thin man with a scraggly, gray beard while he waited for his wash to finish at the tidy laundry.
Larry — a self-described peace-loving, hippie-type Army veteran who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s — regaled Sister Jackie with stories of days gone by. He told her that that his parents wouldn’t let him watch television because of all the turmoil in the world at the time.
Today, he lives “here and there” and has overcome some tough times. But, he survived. “You have to have faith in God,” Larry said. “He’s not going to give up on you. I came this close to death many times, and I’m still here. That’s God. That’s faith.”
Eager to offer a listening ear, Sister Jackie wasn’t at the laundry to wash her clothes. She was with more than a dozen volunteers from St. Vincent de Paul Parish in St. Louis. They’re part of the Suds of Love ministry that provides laundry soap, money for washing machines, accompaniment and snacks once a month for people who are homeless or experience poverty.
After a busy but orderly start to the laundry day, a few volunteers gathered around Shirley Lester as she entertained the volunteers with stories while waiting for her wash to complete. She told of having her son removed from her home and put in a children’s home because she abused drugs. After facing obstacles, her prayer was answered when her son was returned by a kind judge.
“I trust God,” said Shirley, who lives in a senior housing apartment.
Assisting with a triple load, volunteer Nik Mahfood called for extra detergent pods. She and her children, Rory Mahfood-Thurman, 13, and Liam Mahfood-Thurman, 11, jetted back and forth setting up washers and assisting with the loads. Nik said it’s “our responsibility to serve the community and my responsibility to teach my kids that this is the way we do it.”
Rory said she enjoyed learning the well-planned process and working with people: “It’s fun.”
Suds of Love began in February of 2018, developed after a former parishioner, Tom McCracken, read about a similar program inviting guests to do their laundry for free. The parish pays for the machines and provides detergent and dryer sheets. It started with about 18 guests each month and now averages about 45. The guests mostly are people served by St. Vincent’s social ministry’s meals program, lunch window, food pantry and senior outreach.
“They often wear the same clothes all week,” said Mary Hermann, co-coordinator of Suds of Love along with her sister-in-law Angelika Buckley. “It’s very much a community. I often say we’re lucky because other people talk about helping the poor, but we at St. Vincent get to be hands-on, being involved in actually knowing people, recognizing them, and helping them do their laundry,” Hermann said.
The guests include regulars, newcomers, single people and even families. Some have jobs but still can’t make ends meet. Extra clothes are available for those who need them, and blankets and bedding are washed as well as clothes. One of the volunteer roles is to play with the children while their parents are occupied with the laundry.
“We’ve had families living in a car. They’re people without any support, and something happens to them and they’re homeless. Sometimes new people come to town, thought they had a job, then an illness occurs, they lose the job and are living in their car,” Hermann said.
The volunteers refer these laundry guests to the parish outreach for help in getting back on their feet.
The guests and volunteers “care for each other and have fun,” said Hermann, who believes that just a few rough turns and a lack of a support system can bring anyone to homelessness or struggles with poverty. Hermann’s favorite example of the bond that forms is the time when a guest couldn’t keep his pants up and a volunteer took off his belt and gave it to him.
An offshoot of the laundry is a corps of volunteers who sew torn items for the guests.
John and Mary Walsh greeted the guests as soon as they came into the laundry. The project is “so practical,” John Walsh said. “You know it’s expensive when you take a roll of quarters and keep feeding it. It’s like a slot machine that doesn’t pay off.”
He’s gained a lot in the interesting conversations with guests, including one who offered to teach him to play chess.
Mary Walsh said one of the homeless guests has a job in a restaurant kitchen. He at first refused the offer of help with his laundry but relented when her husband insisted, she said.
Another volunteer, Greg Belken, said that each laundry session is unique, with a varied mix of guests and needs each time. “Some people don’t have a home to sleep in, some people do, and some people have lots of kids,” he said.
The volunteers praised the laundromat owners, Roz and Jerry Schwartz, who welcome the guests. Roz Schwartz said it’s the parish that gets the kudos. Laundry guest Bill Day said he has formed a friendship with the Schwartzes and the parishioners. “It’s a big help to me,” he said.
Alphonso Harris, a client who’s had some health setbacks, once worked with the Jesuits at St. Matthew Parish and at Dismas House with Jesuit Father Charles Dismas Clark. Harris, homeless since 2013, attends Mass at St. Vincent and Sts. Peter and Paul. He appreciates seeing volunteers who bring their children along to help.
“There is a commendable stewardship at both St. Vincent de Paul and Sts. Peter and Paul when people bring their kids in to be of service to the community,” Harris said. “I don’t see that anywhere else.”
Sister Germaine Price, DC, said Suds of Love is “needed and very much appreciated. We’re a group of people who want to be together. We know their (guest’s) names and see them as who they are, as wonderful people.”
Donations of funds, soap pods and dryer sheets are sought for Suds of Love, a ministry on the second Thursday of each month.
To donate, visit www.bit.ly/2OOcP39, call (314) 231-9328 or mail a check to St. Vincent de Paul Parish, 1408 S. 10th St., St. Louis, MO 63104-3275.
parishes are needed to organize, fund and provide volunteers for
another day of free laundry for the clients. St. Vincent de Paul Parish
will provide training and other assistance. For information, call (314)
231-9328 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suds of Love includes:
• About 30 volunteers, some who come every week. New volunteers are welcome.
• About 45 guests on average each week who bring their laundry.
• Average contribution of parishioners to the effort: $600 a month
• A load of laundry takes 28 minutes, providing volunteers time to interact with guests