Imagine an object that could help some students improve their attendance. Other students will learn leadership skills. Still others will discover how to become valuable employees some day. And everyone smells better.
That object? A basket of laundry. A humble chore is changing lives in one high school.
Beloit Memorial High School looks a lot like the old factories that sprawl across this city just north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border. It’s huge.
Nearly three-quarters of its students are considered to be living in poverty, although graduation rates are slightly higher than state averages.
So how can a small team of students help their fellow Purple Knights? “We clean clothes for students who cannot afford to do laundry at all times,” announced Hunter James Otto. He’s a student, aspiring entertainer, and hard-working member of a new program developed by special education teachers and students. He says “Loads 2 Success” has him excited about working.
The idea behind Loads 2 Success is that poverty affects kids in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, they skip school because they don’t have anything clean to wear. Teacher Lori Lange says she heard about a school district that saw stronger attendance and better grades after setting up an in-school laundromat.
Lange says she was in a similar situation when she was a kid: Her family was transient, and she didn’t always feel good in the classroom. So finding a way to set up a laundry program for a school would be her way of paying back the adults who helped her survive high school.
Lange also wanted to take it one step further: Special education students learn how to do laundry in life skills class anyway, so why not have them wash clothes for other students? And, when the time is right, they’ll teach those students how to do their own laundry. Fellow special-education teachers Alexis Haenel and Cody Klintworth were on board, as well as teachers, students, and administrators.
Kirstin Foulker demonstrated how to move a load of swim class towels from the washer to the dryer. She helps Loads 2 Success serve around a dozen students who need clean clothes. That number is expected to skyrocket as awareness of the program grows.
Foulker says her whole family -- even her three brothers -- can appreciate her skills.
“And they said I am happy you are helping other kids at school. That’s really great. I said, ‘Yeah, it really is. I feel happy and I feel proud doing it.’”
Alexis Johnson is a junior at Beloit High School. Her sister Savannah is in the special-education program. Alexis says she nearly cried earlier in the day watching Savannah doing laundry on her own, a skill she learned at school.
“She could actually learn something new without us having to do it for her. Now she can do it herself. It’s like -- oh my gosh -- it’s a relief from the stress we have. We have to babysit her 24/7, and now it’s like she can do her own thing now and it’s really incredible.”
This doesn’t mean the students are training to work in laundromats. It means they are learning work habits. It means confidence. Falesha Weigel is a senior, bursting with ideas of how to promote the program. She’ll use the experience as she heads off to college next year, on her way to starting her own business.
“When I help out people, it makes me feel good. It also shows I’m not an individual kid with a disability that can’t do something. When I help another person that doesn’t have a disability, it makes me feel equal to that person. And it also helps me see that person appreciates what we are doing.”
Teacher Lori Lange says her students are looking forward to their next role as leaders. Usually, it’s the special-ed kids who have someone come into their classroom and mentor them. The tables are turned.
Falesha Weigel says word is getting out: She was at a store recently, and someone thanked her for her work. And that made her want to cry “happy tears.” She’s doing something that is changing this world for the better.
Lori Lange is the most experienced of the three special-ed teachers at Beloit High School, and she only has three years under her belt. They managed to kick off the program without any sort of budget and without any cost to taxpayers. Now they’re looking for donations to keep it going: they need laundry detergent, more and better washers and dryers, and what Lange calls “motivators.” She’d like to be able to reward her students for their hard work by taking them out to a movie, a nice meal, or even, yes, a trip to a real laundromat.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Beloit Memorial High School's graduation rates were below the state average. We regret the error.