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Learning at the Laundromat


The spring term is coming to an end at colleges and universities across the United States. The past few weeks were a busy time for many students, including those at Washington Adventist University, near Washington, D.C.

Some students from the university have been helping poor, mostly immigrant children with their schoolwork. But the students did not work with the boys and girls at a traditional school. Every Thursday night, they have been meeting at a laundromat, a place where people go to wash their clothes. The college students are all studying business. They help the children do mathematics homework and increase their understanding of American English.

At the same time, the students are carrying out a marketing plan they designed for this laundromat in Silver Spring, Maryland. They want the Rainbow Coin Laundry to grow and increase its business.

Every week, many people bring their clothing and their children to the Rainbow Coin Laundry. While the parents wash the clothes, the children are busy learning.

Some children completed their schoolwork with help from Washington Adventist University student Heather Alas.

“We want to help the little kids with their homework. A lot of them don’t understand English all that well. So we do try to make sure they understand their homework because sometimes their parents aren’t able to help, as well. "

Christine Sumampouw is also a tutor in the program. She says the program began with just five children, but has grown to about 20. She has been writing a marketing plan for Nok Kim, the owner of the laundromat. They created the idea of a tutoring program to give people a reason to keep coming to the laundromat.

“He’s really friendly with his customers. So, we figured why don’t we try something that he can give to the community?”

The project began last year when Nok Kim asked Kimberly Pichot for help. Ms. Pichot is the head of the university’s business department.

“When we first started working with him, business was bad, which is why we came in. He’d even considered closing his business. But the conversation got started, and we said ‘OK, let’s do a face-lift, let’s redesign his logo, lets…’ and the ideas just started coming. And as we were brainstorming, one student says ‘You know there’s a lot of immigrant children hanging around. Why don’t we add tutoring?’”

Mr. Kim says the laundromat is slowly getting more business.

The project is part of an international entrepreneurial program called Enactus. It was launched in the United States 40 years ago. The program is now at more than 1,700 college and university campuses in 36 countries.

“They want to give students experience before they graduate. And so we collaborate with the community and with businesses. And we find things that the students can do to enhance our community.”

Ms. Pichot says her students are working with other businesses in addition to the Rainbow Coin Laundry.

“Every year, we start the year out with a small business symposium. And we invite any business to come in. It’s a free workshop. And so from that symposium we self-select. We see who wants to work with whom. And then throughout the year, we help other businesses with accounting, with taxes, with marketing, cost analysis -- a variety of things. So this year we’ve worked with a restaurant. We just started working with a tax service to help them expand to a second location. We’ve worked with sports trainers to help expand a dance club.”

She says the students help business owners increase their profits while gaining experience that they cannot get in school.

“And so the depth of their learning is a world apart from just that dry classroom environment where they walk away with a few concepts. They volunteer long hours.”

Christine Sumampouw is completing her studies this year. She has spent about 1,000 hours as a volunteer. That is more than any other student in the group. She says she has learned a lot from volunteering.

“When I first started, I really didn’t think anything of it. Like, I just wanted to get involved in something. But I happen to really like it. Now I, I can say I love working with small businesses.”

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Faiza Elmasry reported this story from Silver Spring, Maryland. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it into Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

homework – n. work that a student is given to do at home

tutor – n. a teacher who works with one student

face-lift – n. changes made to something to make it more attractive or modern

redesign – v. to change the design of (something)

logo – n. a symbol that is used to identify a company and that appears on its products

brainstorm – v. to try to solve a problem by talking with other people; to discuss a problem and suggest solutions

hanging around – idiom spending time idly; to be in a place or in an area, doing nothing in particular

entrepreneurial – adj. the quality of starting a business and being willing to risk loss in order to make money

collaborate – v. to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something

enhance – v. to increase or improve (something)

symposium – n. a formal meeting at which experts discuss a particular topic

dry – adj. not interesting, exciting or emotional

concept – n. an idea of what something is or how it works

How are poor children educated in your country? Are there volunteer groups in your country that help poor, immigrant children? Do college students help businesses in your country improve their profits? We want to hear from you. Write your thoughts in the comments section.

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