Ron Powers spends a few days and nights every week doing strangers’ laundry.
And he couldn’t be happier about it.
Driving the streets of Santa Cruz in a van he outfitted with two washers and dryers, the Scotts Valley, California resident visits homeless shelters and encampments, offering to help keep what few clothes they have clean. The service he offers, Powers said, is not only a chance to do some good but make a connection.
“It's one thing to wash someone's clothes, even to feed them and help them, but it's another to feed the soul,” he said.
Powers started the program, which he dubbed Loads of Love, last year after seeing a YouTube video about Orange Sky Laundry. According to its website, the Australian nonprofit was founded in 2014 as “the world's first free mobile laundry service for the homeless.”
Inspired by the video, Powers saw a way to address a need in his community and share his faith in the process. A devout Christian, he wanted to shift from discussing the teachings of the church to living them out by helping others.
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“Basically I was just in prayer going Lord, you know, I want to do more,” he said.
Powers found a previously owned van, washer and dryer on Craigslist and put his background as a mechanical engineer — he works at Apple — to good use. Initially, he said he was more worried about getting all of the hardware to work than he was about reaching the people he sought to serve.
Powers recalled walking around downtown Santa Cruz after his bible study, where he took the opportunity to talk and connect with the homeless. From these experiences, he realized that the service he now offers could decrease the number of clothing donations needed.
Powers said that many homeless individuals will throw away socks and other clothing when they get dirty because they simply cannot afford to wash them. That, he said, presents an impossible choice: do laundry, or go hungry.
“What I wanted to do is I wanted to restore dignity to people,” he said.
In the process of restoring dignity and helping people avoid the health issues associated with wearing soiled clothing, Powers takes every opportunity to connect personally with whichever person whose clothes he's washing clothes on a given night. Unlike volunteering in a soup kitchen, he said, he gets much more than the standard 10 seconds with the individual he is helping.
“If there's only one person there and I spend all afternoon with that one person, that's okay,” he said. “There's no shortage of people that are hurting and really open.”
Powers said another important aspect of Loads of Love is providing opportunities for volunteers to get involved. He has brought along junior high and high school students, as well as various church groups looking to do outreach ministry.
“Half of the ministry is getting people out of the pews and onto the streets,” he said. “It's not a church ministry, it's a ministry for any church that wants to use it.”
Reflecting on the early days of the program, Powers said that though the service surprised many, it was widely well-received. It took a while to get everything up and running, but taking the risk of trying out a slightly unorthodox idea was well worth the wait.
“Whenever … something new and creative comes up … it is a way that I think God can use it,” he said. “Like hey, I'm gonna (start) something fresh and new and it might turn a couple heads this time.”