East Side millennials unite to keep laundromat from washing away

Longtime East Side resident Grimball Heyward (left) talks with Samantha Sammis, who is with the nonprofit Loving America Street, on Wednesday. The nonprofit took over the ownership of the only laundromat on the East Side and have been able to buy two washers and two dryers.

Every other week, East Side resident Julius Wallace rumbles along the sidewalk with a shopping cart full of dirty clothes to the Laundry Matters laundromat on Reid Street.

The place was set to close to make way for a coffee shop or restaurant when a group of committed 20-somethings who live in the neighborhood decided to form a nonprofit called Loving America Street and take over the business.

“If it closed it would be a disaster,” Wallace said. The 53-year-old has spent his entire life in the neighborhood, a traditionally black, lower-income community that quickly is getting pricier as college students and young adults flock there looking for cheaper rents on the peninsula.

The laundromat has been there a very long time, Wallace said. If it closed, he and many other East Side residents would have to take a taxi to a laundromat, miles away in another part of town. That would be a financial hardship, he said.

Samantha Sammis, 26, said she and the other six young women who live with her in a rented house on Columbus Street wanted to do more than just live in a neighborhood. They wanted to be part of it, love it, and use their talents to help make it better. For some of them, it is part of their Christian faith, but for others it simply is a desire to help the community.

And one of the ways the concerned millennials have done that was to keep the laundromat open, and to make it better. They got volunteers to paint and clean it, and they raised $12,000 to purchase two new washers and two new dryers. Now the place has six working washers and seven dryers. But some of the older machines don’t work that well and people end up waiting in line to use the newer ones, Sammis said. Her group continues to try to raise money for new machines.

But that’s tough, she said.

It costs about $2,200 per month to run the laundromat, and the machines bring in about $1,000. The group has to find donations to cover the balance, she said.

She hopes it can bring the laundromat to a point where it sustains itself financially because many of the women who live in the rental house won’t be there forever. But to become sustainable, the nonprofit needs to raise more money to buy more machines, which will bring in more money, she said.

Amanda Chicago, 22, who lives in the house with Sammis, said the group first considered opening a thrift store in the neighborhood. Members looked at the laundromat space as a potential thrift store site, she said, but then they realized how much the neighborhood needed the laundromat. They decided to try to keep it open.

And they hope to expand what they do there, Sammis said.

They are considering converting an office to community meeting space, she said. And a teacher at a nearby elementary school is thinking about using a table at the back of the laundromat to tutor students.

Sammis said her attraction to the East Side neighborhood began when she was training for a marathon during her senior year at the College of Charleston in 2010. She ran by a group of children playing basketball in Mall Park on Columbus Street. She was inspired to stop and play with them, she said, even though she had no particular fondness for the game.

Now there’s a neighborhood basketball game every Friday night at the park and a dinner and Bible study every Thursday at the house. And the nonprofit gives neighborhood families free portraits each year for Christmas.

Volunteer photographers take the photos in September, and other volunteers raise money to process and frame the prints as holiday gifts, Sammis said.

“We’ve been here for five years and we’ve seen so many cool, cool things happen.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknch.