Cindy Melby of Starkville, at right, helps Sha-Keedia Bishop fold her laundry Monday at Brookville Garden Apartments in Starkville. Ladaisha Latham, left, prepares to start a load in the washer. Melby and fellow volunteers known as the Laundry Love Ladies help apartment residents with laundry every Monday morning. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
August 11, 2018 10:06:48 PM
It was in the spring of 2017 and a group of women from First United Methodist Church in Starkville were participating in a Bible study group when the women began to sense there was something more they should be doing.
The idea -- and in the early stages it wasn't even an idea -- was more of a feeling, a spirit, said Cindy Melby, one of the women.
Nothing seemed clear at that point other than it was a call to service, the women agreed.
Melby had a sense of "where" they were being called -- Brookville Garden Apartments, a federally-assisted, low-income housing development that had earned a reputation as a dangerous place to be.
Melby had befriended a young girl and her family there years earlier and the relationship endured as the young girl grew into a teen and then to a mother of three, all while never escaping the poverty that kept her in the apartments.
If there was any place in town where there were needs, Brookville Garden was it, Melby thought.
So the "where do it" question was quickly resolved.
What to do was the question.
No one could have anticipated the answer.
Laundry room outreach
It is Monday morning, a few minutes after 10, when Melby and three other members of her group arrive at Brookville Garden to fulfill a service to the residents they have been providing for more than a year now.
Each week, from 10 a.m. until noon, the women arrive to provide residents with the detergent and the quarters needed for the coin-operated washers and dryers in the apartment complex's small laundry room. They are about the only white faces you see in the complex aside from the mail carrier.
Already a handful of women residents, some with small children in tow, are waiting for their arrival.
Some people of faith are called to serve in distant mission fields. Some are called to start soup kitchens and food pantries. Some are called to provide medical care or teach.
But as far as anyone can determine, these women are the only people called to do laundry.
They call themselves the Laundry Love Ladies.
This is the only laundry room around where no one separates the whites. The women engage the residents as the tend to their wash. Essie Young, 74, who has been living at the complex for 42 years, moves with surprising quickness from washer to dryer, barely pausing to answer a reporter's questions.
"Yeah, uh-huh, this is a big help," she says as she transfers a load of clothes from washer to dryer. "I've been coming since they started. They're sweet people to do this for me. It's a big help. Big help."
Diamond Aldermen, 28, wasn't sure what to make of it all.
"At first, I didn't know what was going on," she said. "I didn't know if just anybody could come and do this or if it was something you have to pay extra for or something. When they said it was for anybody, I was happy. A lot of times I don't have the money for the washing. Sometimes I would go to a friend's house to do it, but there were times when it was hard to catch a ride there. So this is a big help."
The Laundry Love Ladies have perfected their routine over the past year, adding small touches along the way. Drinks and snacks are provided, a big hit with the kids that come with their moms each week. But the adults aren't left out, either. As word of the ladies' work spread, church members have chipped in with supplies. Melby said people are always giving her ziplock bags of quarters.
"We have door prizes every week and everybody gets a door prize," said Melby. "At the end, we draw out numbers for the prizes -- things like toothpaste, household cleaners, sponges, just everyday things people need. They are so excited."
Melby paused for a moment, a sure sign that there is something more to these Monday visits than laundry.
When you are poor, there is no such thing as a minor expense. There are no small gifts, either.
Melby said the laundry idea evolved from a meeting with the complex manager.
"Three of us came out to see the manager unannounced," Melby said. "We sat in the office and said, 'We are here to tell you we feel like we can help in some way.'
"Tears rolled down her cheek. She said, 'Y'all look like three angels sitting there.'"
The manager, who has since left, described some of difficulties she was facing. Among them were the regular inspections. If a tenant failed two inspections, they were subject to being evicted. One area of inspection involved keeping clothes clean, especially children's clothing. Some residents didn't have the money required to do the laundry.
As Melby and her friends listened, the idea of helping the laundry emerged. The complex manager suggested they talk to the people at the J.L. King Center, who were providing classes for residents to teach them how to keep and maintain their apartments, thus avoiding the possibility of evictions.
"They told us they would provide the laundry detergent through a grant they have," Melby said. "In return, we would encourage the residents to sign up for the classes."
Breaking down barriers
On the first day the women came to the complex for laundry day, Melby said she wasn't sure what to expect -- a group of older white woman turning up to help residents with their laundry.
"There was some suspicion -- what are these people doing here," Melby said. "That first day was our barrier day and that was the end of that. Word got around. Before we left that first day, one of the ladies said, 'I don't know what's going on in here, but there's a real sweet spirit right here,'"
Although they see it as means of putting their faith into practice, the Laundry Love Ladies do not proselytize.
"No Bible-thumping," Melby said. "We don't want to put out some message like, 'Our way of life is better than yours' or make judgments. We do give them a Bible verse at the end of the day, something encouraging that they can put up on their refrigerator for the week.
"Mostly we do a lot of modeling, especially when kids have problems with each other because a lot of our group is former teachers and we are able to show how to resolve things."
Lisa Lindley, a retired teacher, said that's the part she enjoys most.
"Most of the time, I'm just going around and talking to people and listening," Lindley said. "That fits my personality. And I really enjoy the children. I think my experience as a teacher helps me relate to them, so I can keep them busy while their moms are doing the laundry. It sounds crazy. Who would think doing laundry would be fun? But I really do enjoy it."
Melby said the weekly laundry work has evolved into something more than just an act of community service.
"One of the real positives things that has come out of this is we have created a community within a community. They feel the 'we' now.
"It's genial, non-threatening. We all know each other. We sit and talk, get to know each other, learn about what's going on with them."
Books and gardens
As the group got to know residents and listened to their stories, other opportunities emerged.
After hearing from residents about how difficult it was to get to the library -- many don't have transportation -- the Laundry Love Ladies, working with United Way and Mississippi State, put together a small library in an empty room next to the complex office.
"And just this week, we learned that Habitat for Humanity is going to let us use the lot they own right next door for a community garden," Melby said.
What started with a vague notion of wanting to help has evolved into so much more.
"For a lot of the people here, their world is pretty small, especially if they don't have transportation. We don't push, but we do try to learn about them and their world, what their needs are. We'll ask, do you want a job? What do you like to do? Just to feel them out. And since so many of our group have lived here for so long, we know how to network to make some of those things happen, whether it's a job or access to things, anything really they need that we can help with.
"A year ago, all we had was a feeling that we wanted to help. I don't think any of us could have ever imagined this."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]