The alarm goes off five times a day in Ms. Lynn Malie’s special education class at Doull Elementary School in Denver. The class unanimously reminds her. It’s time for nine-year-old Morgan Pohl to change her shirt. Today, it’s no sweat. She has clean-smelling, rolled shirts ready to go. The freshly laundered shirts are a much better alternative to the old bandana around her neck. She even washed them by herself.
Morgan is diagnosed with polymicrogyria, an abnormal brain development condition that causes her to drool excessively from partial muscle paralysis. For many people with polymicrogyria like Morgan, changing clothing multiple times daily is crucial for staying dry and comfortable. At school, this is sometimes not an option.
In January, the dedicated teachers and staff at Doull Elementary received the solution they were desperately searching for to help Morgan and other children who are sometimes absent due to a lack of clean clothes. The school received a grant of $10,000 to install a brand new washing machine and dryer through the Care Counts™ program sponsored by Whirlpool and partnered with Teach For America.
According to the Department of Education and the Civil Rights Data Collection, roughly one out of every six students missed more than 15 days of school during the 2015-16 Academic Year. The high absence count could be attributed to a number of reasons, but since the Care Counts™ program was launched in fall 2016, high-risk student attendance improved 91% overall for tracked participants.
Currently, Whirlpool has helped 72 schools in 13 cities nationwide with a high-risk student population install new washers and dryers. At Doull Elementary, the program has already had a tremendous impact on both staff and students.
According to Assistant Principal Rob Suglia, Doull almost didn’t receive the grant. Another unnamed school in the Denver area was originally awarded the grant, but due to water hookup difficulties, they were unable to install the machines. Doull was the runner-up and only recently opened their new laundry room this semester.
In order to be eligible for the grant, a school must have a high-risk student population and at least one Teach For America alumni in a leadership role. Since Suglia was an alumnus and 92% of the students at Doull receive free or reduced lunch, the elementary school met all the requirements, but it was Ms. Malie’s class that helped their need to stand out.
“It’s a great life skill and it’s something that really could be taught and be useful for a lot of kids in her classroom,” Suglia said.
Before the new laundry room opened, teachers and staff resorted to using an old washer and dryer in the school’s basement — an area Principal Jodie Carrigan says is only meant for custodians to wash mopheads, rags and towels. However, because of Morgan, Ms. Malie was forced to find someone to watch her other students while she went to the basement with Morgan to do a load of laundry.
“We were going downstairs and it was creepy and scary for Morgan. We’d have to go down five times a day and I’d have to have someone with the class, which takes away from learning time. Now that it’s [the laundry room] upstairs, it can be a two-hour process,” Malie said.
“It takes no time at all now. She [Morgan] has the whole procedure and step-by-step in the laundry room, but she doesn’t need it anymore. Without the program, we never would have said run downstairs by yourself.”
And it’s not just Morgan who benefits from the laundry room.
“We went on a field trip the other day and someone sprayed sunscreen all over them—like until the bottle was empty—and we had to wash that,” Malie said.
Carrigan remembers an incident in the cafeteria that would have been embarrassing without the laundry room. “We had a fourth grader a couple of weeks back who spilled a pitcher of water and she was doused. She was so self-conscious and cowering and it was great to send her to the restroom to put on a jacket and zip it all the way up. She gave me her shirt. I threw it in the dryer and it was seriously dry in five minutes. She wasn’t crying. She went back to class. It didn’t ruin her day,” she said. “It’s so nice to be able to just solve those little problems so that kids can get back to work learning.”
According to Carla Graeber, the school psychologist, the social impact of having clean clothes is extremely important for helping students feel accepted among their peers — especially for students from low-income households. “We’ll have kids that have their one favorite hoodie that they wear every single day and it’s filthy. They don’t have any other clothes or they only choose to wear that one and other kids start to notice. And so we can just be like, ‘Hey let me wash your hoodie while it’s a nice warm day out.’ So we can help kids out that way socially. If we can take that one thing away easily, then we’re happy to do it,” Graeber said.
According to Suglia, some kids might miss school because their clothes smell like cigarettes. Malie, in particular, remembers times when she heard a parent use clothing as an excuse for their child to miss class. “Everyday we’ll take attendance and see who’s absent. Our secretaries will call them up and say ‘Why is so-and-so absent today?’ and frequently we’ll have parents say ‘Oh, he washed his jeans in the tub last night and they’re still wet. Jeans don’t dry overnight,’” she said. “That’s not a reason to miss school.”
At the moment, Doull Elementary only allows staff and select students to use the laundry room until they figure out an official system, but Suglia says they will eventually open it to students who are homeless, living in hotels or live with a single parent who might not have an easy time accessing a laundry facility due to work, income or transportation issues.
“We certainly don’t have the capacity to open it up to 400 families and say ‘Hey come do your laundry here,’” Carrigan said.
Although not everyone at Doull will be able to use the laundry room, Suglia is hopeful there will be other ways to help the cause using the new machines.
“We do a lost and found swap with two different schools. We have 100 coats and kids that need those, but we can’t give them to our own students because if the original owner sees someone wearing his or her coat, there might be conflict. [With the new laundry room], we could wash those and give them to another school,” he said.
Graeber says the laundry machines can also be used to wash hand-me-down clothes from her children that she keeps at school in case of accidents or spills. Doull Elementary isn’t allowed to store a lot of clothes in the school due to bed bugs and lice, so they can’t accept donations from the public, but gift cards to buy specific items for the children from Target or Walmart are much appreciated.
In addition to removing social barriers and preventing embarrassing situations for students, the new laundry room at Doull is also teaching the students important life skills. Morgan now knows how to roll clothing so it stays unwrinkled and can wash and dry her shirts without assistance. Morgan uses a tablet device to speak and follow instructions, but Ms. Malie said she doesn’t even use that much anymore. Morgan is also proud of her own accomplishments.
“It gives her so much independence and confidence,” Malie said. Morgan is also determined to teach other students how to wash, dry and fold their own clothing, according to Malie.
“We’d really like all the kids to take it on as a functional skill and have it as part of our classroom routine,” she said.
Carrigan says the empowerment the laundry room gives the kids is wonderful. “We’re not providing a laundry service. We don’t say, ‘Hey bring your dirty laundry and we’ll do it for you. It’s teaching kids how do you take ownership of this? How do you wash these clothes?” she said.
Morgan speaks with her device to show her excitement for her new skill. “I’m happy that it’s fun,” she said.
All photography by Samantha Hines.