Oakland laundromat promotes love of reading, offering story-time for children

Family Laundry on Foothill Blvd. in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood (Laura Guevara)

An East Bay laundromat is providing members of its community more than just a place to wash clothes: It's promoting literacy for kids and helping its non-English speaking neighbors learn the language.

The business is called Family Laundry. As its name suggests, owners Laura Guevara and David Macquart-Moulin are seeking to evoke the message of a community family-hood as part of their presence in the Fruitvale neighborhood. 

To that end, Family Laundry has launched a literacy program at their business with grants secured through a partnership with the nonprofit group Libraries Without Borders, which has helped stock books for children who wait with their families while their clothes are being washed. Guevara said it's the first of its kind program in California. 

Family Laundry has also brought in the Oakland Public Library (OPL) to host its “Wash and Learn” story-time every week. 

Every Thursday morning and on some Saturdays, a librarian comes in to read to children and sing songs with them. Toddlers and grade school aged children are invited to sit around the Laundromat's "Community Room," as the librarian captures the imagination and attention of the young visitors to the event.

Wash and Learn" story time held at Family Laundry (Laura Guevara)

Meanwhile, in the other room, parents or other caretakers can carry out the major household task of getting their laundry done.

"They're really happy to get to do something really important for their family, while the child is participating in something really educational," said Guevara, who is a mother of two and former teacher.

She said this idea of creating a space that promotes literacy was a no-brainer for her.

Family Laundry's "Community Room" (Laura Guevara)

"As a former educator, I understand how important any literacy building habits are with loved ones, and I think this gives children and caretakers an opportunity to really nourish that relationship," Guevara said. "Children are nourished by our love and attention, and if we read with them, that sets them up with success," she added.

The Oakland Public Library started working with Family Laundry, back in June when the business reached out to its staff. The OPL has its own mobile library program and has a strong commitment to community outreach, so this was a natural partnership. The library also offers books that children who come to the Laundromat can take home and keep. 

"I think what makes it so special is that when you go thinking about doing laundry, oh put my laundry in and stand there for 40 minutes, you don't think, free stuff and free entertainment," said OPL Public Information Officer Matt Berson. "It's a great way to use that hour and hour and half productively," he added.  

Guevara and Macquart-Moulin have since expanded their efforts to offer services to its community members. And they got their customers involved in deciding what the program should be by asking them through a survey, what their needs are.

"We're not bringing a program from the outside. We're actually engaging our customers through conversation," said Guevara. 

Many responded that they would like to learn English. So with that information, Guevara tapped into her network of educators and created an English as a Second Language (ESL) program for its customers.   

Family Laundry was able to use grant money from the "Wash and Learn" program to fund ESL classes, offering them for free every Tuesday morning.

ESL classes held at Family Laundry (Laura Guevara)

With Guevara's work in education and her husband's background in non-profit work in the tech sector, she said that when the couple decided to launch Family Laundry, it was a foregone conclusion that they would model their business with a broader scope beyond just making money.

"I think it surprises people that a for-profit can benefit its community this way. For us it was a seamless integration," Guevara said. "I think that companies are trying to find ways to embed more social responsibility in what  they do, and David and I are committed to running a for-profit business and also engaging our immediate community." 

That immediate community, she said was one that they recognized as dynamic and unique.

"My husband and I understand that we are really, really in a special place, where you have a strong community," Guevara said. "The Bay Area and Oakland are changing really quickly. So how do you move into a space and engage them in a really responsible way?" 

Their response to that question has received positive feedback from the community they serve. "The customers are happy. We are happy,"  Guevara said. "We're responding to their needs."