By Lu Stanton León
This is the first in an occasional series on neighborhood ministries.
On the first Sunday of each month, patrons at a coin-operated laundry near St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in southeast Washington, DC, find children reading or being read to while the washing machines and dryers whir and vibrate nearby.
It’s part of Literature & Laundry, a service project founded by the Annunciation Chapter of the Order of the Daughters of the King based at St. Timothy’s. For the past three years, two or three volunteers have gone once a month to the nearby laundromat to read to and read with children while their parents and caregivers do laundry. Each child is given at least one book to take home.
“It’s a reading ministry that inspires joy through books,” says Donna Lewis Johnson, program founder and a member of Daughters of the King. “Even the most reticent child or the most reticent parent really becomes engaged. When we sit down and have a child read to us, or if we read to them, it brings joy. Every parent wants what’s best for their child, and they love seeing people in the community treating their kids with kindness. We do that.”
What prompted the reading ministry?
“I like to say that God gave me the idea,” Johnson says. “It was through a hardscrabble circumstance.”
In 2011, Johnson lost her job. “Soon afterward my washing machine went kaput,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to replace it or have it repaired, so I had to go to my neighborhood laundromat on Naylor Road to wash my family’s clothes.
“I live in southeast Washington, which is demographically diverse, but the laundromat itself is located in a community of concentrated poverty. When I’d go, I’d see a lot of restless and bored young children running around and trying to get their parents’ attention. The parents would sometimes end up yelling at the kids. I noticed there was an absence of books and reading, and I thought, ‘Wow, books would give the children something to do, the parents would be less stressed, and the environment would change for the better for everyone.’
“So I took the idea of reading with the kids and giving them the books to the Daughters of the King, Annunciation Chapter,” Johnson says. “My sister Daughters said yes immediately and said, ‘Let’s get this thing off the ground!’”
Johnson and the Daughters were up to something greater than improving the atmosphere in her laundromat. They knew that reading proficiency was critical to academic success, and that children from poor neighborhoods in the District often lagged behind other students. As a study published in 2014 would demonstrate, only 13 percent of children from low-income families in the District were reading at grade level, compared to 61 percent of children from wealthier families—the largest income-based gap in the nation. Literature and Laundry was perfectly situated to help some of those struggling students.
It took some time to pull together all the pieces. Johnson talked to the owner of the laundromat and another member of the Daughters, a lawyer, wrote up a legal document, which the owner gladly signed. Because the Daughters of the King bylaws prohibit fundraising, they raised money for the books through the Episcopal Church Women at St. Timothy’s. The reading ministry kicked off in February 2013. When the laundromat that first housed the reading program closed in 2014, Literature & Laundry moved to the owner’s other facility on Dix Street, Northeast, not far from St. Timothy’s.
“We have events in which the cost of admission is a new book,” Johnson says. “Just last November we held a book fair at Barnes and Noble and raised money for a lot of books for the initiative. Barnes and Noble has been a great partner.”
Typically, anywhere from two to six children are at the laundry on a given Sunday, and approximately 135 children have participated in the project.
“It’s a ministry to us as well,” Johnson said. “As Daughters of the King, our rule of life is to pray and serve and evangelize. We try to live the rule with our actions. We try to show that we care. We give brand new books, not gently used. We really want to honor the dignity of the kids and give them something new. The D. C. Public Library donated new books to us through their early literacy program. Each child gets at least one book or more, depending on their appetite.
“What’s consistent over the program’s three years is the joy that it inspires.”