While many local residents are supporting underserved members of the community by donating to food banks during the COVID-19 pandemic, one group is providing what Polly Liu called “an often-overlooked” service to those in need – laundry.
The Lius are among seven South Bay families that have partnered with laundromats in Mountain View and San Jose to launch Free Laundry Friends. They have raised nearly $25,000 through GoFundMe to cover the laundry expenses of hospital custodial staff and low-income families.
Initially, the fundraising team provided $35 gift-card raffles for laundry services to 20 custodial staff members at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. After their efforts were widely appreciated, Liu said they decided to furnish gift cards and homemade brownies to all 140 staff members.
“They are on the front lines, too – cleaning the hospital beds – and they just feel so appreciated (by the donations),” the Los Altos resident said. “Just small gestures like that can make them feel so amazing. It’s kind of unbelievable, right?”
Donations poured in from across the Bay Area as news agencies spread the word.
After receiving a surprise treat from Free Laundry Friends last month, El Camino Hospital staffer Cindy Zaldivar compiled a list of testimonials from the custodial services crew.
“Thanks for thinking of our EVS (Environmental Services) and Transport staff!” Lorna Koep, director of EVS and patient transport at El Camino Health, said in gratitude. “These donations bring a smile to my face and tears to my eyes. The generosity is overwhelming at times. … They are often the unsung heroes of the front-line staff. Your recognition brings it home that they are truly appreciated.”
The effort continued as Free Laundry Friends extended its outreach to local families struggling to make a living during the pandemic. Initially, it was difficult to get the idea off the ground. The biggest challenge was cold-calling laundromats and getting ahold of them, Liu said. Their work paid off, according to Liu, noting that several laundromat owners heeded the call to help.
“We always overheard stories being shared – how (families) have lost their jobs and how they cannot afford,” said Linh Trinh, owner of the Oasis Laundromat in Mountain View. “They try to minimize their trip to the laundromats because, sometimes, they couldn’t afford it. And, with this Free Laundry Friend campaign, we saw that as a perfect opportunity to help those families.”
Oasis Laundromat was the second to partner with Free Laundry Friends. It matched 50% of the gift cards to El Camino Hospital custodial staff. Together, they continue to surprise low-income families with free laundry services and homemade pastries using funds provided by Free Laundry Friends.
“At first, they are a little suspicious,” Liu said. “They are like, ‘Why do you want to give me free money?’ But sometimes, they are a little surprised – maybe a little shocked and then overjoyed.”
Last month, Liu and her family visited San Jose to check on the laundromats.
“We were all in masks,” she said. “It was kind of in the middle of the whole virus thing, so we were just a little bit scared.”
She recalled seeing a man down the road who was lugging his laundry basket. The family approached him and told him about Free Laundry Friends and their fund- raising efforts. The man was on the brink of tears at the news and took a picture with them soon after. Liu gave him $20 to do his laundry.
“I think it’s just those encounters, because a lot of times we don’t get proximate – we don’t actually see the people we are helping,” Liu said. “We live in Los Altos, so it’s kind of nice to actually see their faces and see them smile and talk to them.”
Liu’s husband, Ed Han, came up with the idea of Free Laundry Friends after he noticed that most low-income families use laundromats to wash and dry their clothes. The idea became a reality after Liu discussed it with six other family friend groups who have been volunteering together for the past five years.
“Some families are baking brownies for free to handout, so it’s been an amazing experience,” she said. “I think it’s helped all of us cope with what’s going on better because we feel like we’re doing something to help. It’s definitely a win-win all across the board.”
Liu said the best part is hearing the stories of those who have benefited from the fundraiser. During a pandemic, the closest way to make an impact is to find creative ways to give back to the community, she added.
“It means so much that people are willing to just give us what they can because they really believe in the work we are doing,” Liu said. “I think we are all going to come out of this a little more kinder and a little more empathetic.”
To donate to Free Laundry Friends and for more information, visit gofundme.com/f/freelaundryfriends.