An Interview with Loving America Street Executive Director Samantha Sammis
Loving America Street is a faith-based, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that promotes sustainability and preservation within the Eastside neighborhood of Charleston, S.C., through community investment and economic empowerment.
Recently, LAS Executive Director Samantha Sammis discussed the work of her organization with PlanetLaundry – work that includes the restoration and operation of Laundry Matters, the neighborhood’s only self-service laundry.
Please give me some background into Loving America Street, as well as how you came to eventually establish this organization.
Very simply, Loving America Street started after I began playing basketball regularly with some youths from the Eastside neighborhood in 2010. I was playing basketball with these kids once a week and building relationships with them and their families. Eventually, I got to know the police officers and other locals who would regularly come to Mall Park where we played. We just started to develop a strong community in that area.
In 2012, I made the decision to move to the Eastside, with the philosophy that people are people – they’re not “projects.” I didn’t want to do something where I was simply serving a low-income population once a week and feeling good about myself. I want my neighbors to be my friends, my family and my community. I think sustainable change is only possible through genuine relationships.
I thought moving into the community was the first important step toward building those relationships. Since then, I’ve had all sorts of random jobs – I’ve worked at a grocery store, I’ve been a nanny, I’ve worked for a nonprofit group, and I was unemployed for a while. But the entire time I kept playing basketball in the park with those kids from the community on Fridays.
What is the mission of Loving America Street?
We focus on an asset-based approach to community development. This means that, in addition to living in the Eastside and befriending our neighbors, we further seek to build up the social and economic assets of the Eastside. By focusing on assets and strengths of the community, we are able to exercise sustainable development that works from the inside out and preserves the value and dignity of the local residents.
How does asset-based development work?
The Eastside is a place where it’s easy to see social and economic weaknesses. We can choose to dwell on these weaknesses, or we can choose to see potential. We can choose to see marginalized individuals, or we can choose to see God’s children. We can choose to see hopelessness and poverty – or we can choose to see opportunity for restoration, peace, empowerment and reconciliation.
We currently exercise asset-based community development by identifying local parks and green spaces as places to host cookouts, seasonal events and outdoor activities for youth. These spaces are being built up for productive use, and as a result, empower residents to engage in healthy community.
I live with six roommates in a big house on the Eastside, and together we run Loving America Street. Our home also is a valuable asset to the neighborhood, as we intentionally preserve it as a space for ministry, safety, trust and protection for our neighbors.
Of course, our newest endeavor includes renewing and renovating the neighborhood laundromat, now named Laundry Matters. This space is further an asset to the Eastside, as it is the only laundromat within walking distance for local residents. We hope to preserve this facility as a necessary service for the community while also recreating it as an additional space for community engagement.
How long has Laundry Matters been a part of the program?
In March 2015, the landlord who owns our house in the neighborhood, and who also is a real estate developer in the community, told us he had some commercial real estate available and wanted to know if our nonprofit was interested in it. It was this horrible, rundown laundromat. There was no ceiling in parts of the building, and there was no front door. More than half of the machines were broken, with many beyond repair. There was asbestos, mold, roaches – just nasty things all over the place.
At first, I told him I wanted no part of some nasty, old laundromat. Then, I went home and had a revelation. What was wrong with me? After all, we do asset-based community development, and that laundry could be a huge asset. It’s the only laundromat in the neighborhood. People need it. People will use it. A lot of people here just don’t have their own washers and dryers.
I decided that we’d be doing the community a huge disservice if we just let it go. People need to do their laundry, so I called the landlord back and told him we wanted to lease it.
It sounds like quite a renovation project.
The store is about 1,200 square feet and was almost completely inoperable when we took it over. It was not a place where people wanted to do their laundry.
We raised more than $50,000 in four months. Volunteers gutted, cleaned and painted the laundry. We ripped out all of the broken machines, and now have 12 new washers and 12 new dryers, with help from Southern Automatic Machinery in Fayetteville, Ga., and RYA Corp. in Charleston. Everything that’s in the laundromat right now has been donated.
In all, we’ve put nearly $100,000 into that facility. We had to replace the ceiling, put in new floors and installed a new water heating system. It didn’t have air conditioning, so we’ve added that, too. We’ve done a lot of work on that place.
What’s next for Laundry Matters?
We’ve gotten all of the big “needs” out of the way. We could probably fit one or two more of each machine in there, but otherwise everything has been pretty much taken care of.
The next larger goal would be to buy the entire building, because right now we’re leasing the laundry space, which is just a part of a larger structure that’s connected to a corner store, with two apartments above the laundry. We would love to have an investor purchase the building or perhaps have someone donate the building and then maybe partner with the corner store owner in some way. We could provide employment in the area, build job-skills training and use the apartments to provide affordable housing for the employees. That’s the long-term plan.
Who runs the laundry on a day-to-day basis?
I run it. I’m there every day. We also have a neighbor who helps us. I’ll open it every day, and he closes it, as well as helping to clean it for us. He’s 68 years old and has lived in this neighborhood his entire life. Everybody knows and trusts him.
I’m sure there are some great stories or anecdotes that have come from the laundromat and the local residents it serves. Can you share any of those?
We have a fantastic relationship with a lot of the kids in the neighborhood – and the cool thing about that is the kids will immediately give you a relationship with their parents. Therefore, a lot of the parents have come to know us well and trust us – so much so, in fact, that they’ll send their kids to the laundromat when they’re working, if they’re busy or they need something for them to do.
For example, this one girl had been getting into some trouble at school and got suspended. Her mother brought her to the laundromat at 8:00 in the morning on a Tuesday and said, “Samantha, can you use her for anything? I’ve got to go to work.”
So, T’Essence, who is about 12 years old, was at the laundromat with me literally from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. She helped me clean and take care of customers. She was my little shadow for the whole day, and she loved it! It was such a cool thing to be able to work with her on how to be a helpful, welcoming, friendly person.
Especially during the summer, kids will come into the laundromat all the time. We have Pop-Tarts, Gatorade, pretzels and other snacks here for them. If they read for 10 minutes, write a paragraph, recite the alphabet or write their name – whatever academic skill fits their age level – they get a snack. If they don’t want to do any of those things, they have to help me clean. And, believe me, giving a 5-year-old a spray bottle is like the best thing in the world to them. They’ll come in all the time – “Miss Samantha, can I have a job?”
You took over the laundromat in part to make it a space for additional community engagement. What programs do you currently run in conjunction with the laundry business?
We host financial literacy courses, computer coding classes, Bible study and free laundry services for the homeless at Laundry Matters. All profit from the laundromat goes directly into rent, utilities and operational costs of Loving America Street.
On Mondays nights, we offer free laundry services and dinner for the homeless, which is provided by First Baptist Church Mt. Pleasant. On Wednesday nights, we present computer coding classes for children ages 7 through 17, which is provided by Women in Tech. And, on Thursday nights, we hold a Bible study at the store; on these evenings, we are able to provide a safe place to gather and grow as a community while also facilitating spiritual growth and vitality.
What other types of outreach does Loving America Street offer?
Every Friday afternoon, Loving America Street and volunteers provide basketballs and other outdoor activities for the Eastside youth at Mall Park. During this time, we engage the kids in safe activities that take place in the neighborhood while also walking children to and from their homes in order to build relationships with their families and guardians.
We organize a family photo day each December during the Christmas season. During this event, we provide lunch and music at the park while offering the free service of family portraits for the holiday season. The following week, we develop and frame the photos and personally deliver them with a plate of baked goods to the residents.
We also host neighborhood cookouts in the park as just another opportunity to gather and commune with our neighbors. We host these cookouts during the spring and fall – providing free hotdogs and hamburgers, as well as hosting games and activities for the children.
If people want to help out with Laundry Matters or with Loving America Street in general, how can they do so?
Definitely visit our website at lovingamericastreet.org, which provides a full overview of everything we do. The site features a list of volunteer opportunities – and, if anyone wants to donate, there is an option for that as well. Those interested can subscribe to our monthly newsletter through the website. In addition, we’re also on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
What would you most like those reading this interview to take away from it?
First of all, I’m not a businessperson. My background is in religion, theology and counseling. Even two years ago, I never would have imagined myself running a laundromat.
However, as laundry operators, we have such an opportunity to serve our communities. Hygiene and cleanliness are personal needs. Those are the basics that people need to survive. They need clean clothes to go to work and school. Laundromats have many opportunities before them. They can provide laundry services for the homeless, partner with nonprofits to hold fundraisers for the community, run discounts on school uniform cleaning and much more. All in all, it’s about tapping into the specific needs of your local community.