Social Suds 

The South Memphis Alliance social services laundromat nears completion.

Laundry lists seldom include things like child services and family planning, but that may change once the South Memphis Alliance opens its laundromat this April.

The latest undertaking of the South Memphis Alliance (SMA), a nonprofit that helps struggling inner-city families, is the construction of a full-service community laundromat in the heart of Soulsville that will double as a clearinghouse for information on Department of Child Services (DCS) programs and services offered by SMA.

SMA primarily focuses on helping youth in foster care and families in crisis through programs that help young adults transitioning out of foster care, pregnant teens who are or were in foster care, and kids who are trying to avoid alcohol, drugs, and HIV infection.

SMA was founded as an outreach program through various neighborhood associations in South Memphis in 2000, but it has flourished into a nonprofit organization centered on helping struggling families in South Memphis.  

"What we were originally doing was working with local neighborhood associations so everything could be organized and we could get our message out," said Reginald Milton, founder and executive director of SMA. "But it didn't quite work that way. It was really challenging trying to get people to respond."

After working with neighborhood associations in South Memphis for five years, SMA moved into a building on South Bellevue, next door to a laundromat. SMA development manager Shelley Thomas said members of SMA began to interact with people at the laundromat, handing out pamphlets as well as giving them the change needed to use the machines. When rumors circulated that the laundromat was going to be sold, Milton saw an opportunity.

"The laundromat had been there for about 20 years," Milton said. "The owner was about to sell it, and he wanted to turn it into a nightclub. We didn't think that was going to work for the community. After all, a laundromat is one of the base things that a community needs."

Milton said that DCS had come to the SMA asking for help reaching out to families. Milton saw the laundromat as a possible solution to help DCS reach those families, and after receiving funding from the Assisi Foundation and the city of Memphis, a plan was put into action.

"We realized that people using the laundromat are just sitting around for at least an hour," Milton said.

"The problem DCS had was that they couldn't reach people until they were on the emergency radar screen. How do you reach people who don't know they need services?" Milton asked. "So when we came up with the idea for the laundromat, it just worked in every possible way. Here we have people who have free time. They're in a good mood, and they have to come back on a regular basis. The biggest part of prevention is repetition."

With the opening of the SMA laundromat drawing near, Thomas and Milton already have their sights set on other buildings in the community, including the Reed Brothers Dairy Plant across the street from the laundromat. They want to build a family services facility there. Fund-raising for the dairy plant has already begun, and Milton estimates the funding will cost around $4.5 million.

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