Showing love, one load at a time

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Mary Susan Burnett-Miller was reading a laundromat magazine while on vacation when she first learned about organizations like Laundry Love. Years prior in Ventura, Calif., a group of people asked a homeless man named T-Bone how they could serve him. "If I had clean clothes I think people would treat me like a human being," T-Bone responded. Laundry Love, an organization providing free laundry services to the poor, was born.

After coming back from her vacation, Burnett-Miller, a longtime parishioner of Church of the Nativity in Burke, knew she had to start the ministry there. With the support of her pastor, Father Robert Cilinski, and a template from Laundry Love, she began to research laundromats that might host the group. Only Blair Johnson and his son Charlie, co-owners of a chain of Northern Virginia laundromats, answered her inquiry. Blair was ecstatic to get her call, said Burnett-Miller, and knew just the place: Laundry World in Falls Church, a facility that serves many who could use the help.

Support came pouring in when Burnett-Miller announced the group at the church's ministry fair and at Sunday Masses.

"I thought we were going to get like 15 people signed up, but we had 75," said Sydney Grace Miller, Mary Susan's daughter, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. "When we had the detergent drive, we ended up with over 100 bottles of detergent. We calculated and (that's) 7,000 loads," she said. "We're not going to need detergent for a long time."

As a bonus, the detergent bottles and dryer sheets, which are stored in their basement, make the house smell great.

The next step was to advertise in the laundromat so that customers would understand their mission. When volunteers from Nativity arrived that first Saturday, the lines were out the door, said Burnett-Miller. They set out coloring books and toys for the children, a table of snacks like granola bars and hot chocolate and then got to work on the laundry.

Men and women loaded their own clothes; then volunteers from Nativity came by with several detergents from which they could choose and swiped the money card that started the machines. After their third laundry day Dec. 5, Nativity's Laundry Love had provided 1,145 free loads of laundry to the community.

"We are so blessed to be able to help them in this small way," said Burnett-Miller.

In addition to helping them with their laundry, the group hopes to be able to befriend the people they serve. On one Saturday, a mother came in with two children and a baby. The volunteers held the baby and played with the children to give the mom a chance to fold her laundry.

"It's nice to make their day a little easier," said Burnett-Miller.

The simplicity and impact of the project is what first attracted Burnett-Miller to Laundry Love. The laundromat is a safe, warm environment where whole families can come to volunteer, she said. Her daughter added, "People mostly think people need food (and) clothes, but they don't think people need clean laundry. If you think about the less fortunate kids in school, they're maybe embarrassed because their clothes smell bad or their sheets are dirty," said Miller. "Also, (with Laundry Love) it's not just donating to a random cause; you actually get to come out here and help everybody out."

Amy Smith, an eighth-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, first heard the announcement for Laundry Love at Mass and immediately asked her mom if they could volunteer.

"I needed service hours for school and also it sounded like a cool thing to do because I want to fix poverty and this seemed like a good thing to do to help that," she said. Her mom, Diane, added, "I'm here because she wanted to be here. It's a lovely thing to be able to help these people."

Volunteer and Nativity parishioner Barbara Olson also came because her 13-year-old daughter asked to volunteer. "This time of year, how can you not want to give back to the community?" she said. "Clean clothes on your back does make a difference."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015