In The Wash House laundromat, a child sits on a gray carpet, holding clean socks in one hand and a brand new book in the other.

He got it through a program that is turning laundromats into learning spaces where families can read books, play games and use learning materials while they wait for their wash.

The Wash & Learn program is a partnership among Book Harvest, The Wash House laundromats and Libraries Without Borders, an international literacy organization, and funded by The Triangle Learning Network.

In mid-May, Rachel Stine, the program director for Book Harvest, visited one of the laundromats to volunteer with the program, which offers story times twice a week and leaves free books out for people to take.

But instead of reading to the 3-year-old there that day, Stine sat and watched the boy sitting on his mother’s lap at the child-sized table, reading a book about animals.

“Roar!” he giggled.

“Hiss,” he whispered.

“That’s right,” his mother said as she flipped the page.

Wash & Learn helps prepares children to reach third-grade reading proficiency and succeed beyond that, Stine said.

“All of this happened right before my eyes,” she said. “It was because these tools were available to him. He was naturally engaged. I showed up and even if I didn’t (read to him), he was already reading with his mom. He was learning.”

This was when Stine realized the potential of the program.

“What would have happened if (the books) weren’t there?” she asked. “He wouldn’t have had that resource to build that background knowledge and vocabulary of those animals.”

‘The perfect place’

In February Wash & Learn opened locations at The Wash House on Chapel Hill Road and Liberty Street in Durham. A third will open next month at the company’s laundromat on Fayetteville Street.

“I would love to see this program replicated throughout the Triangle and into different parts of the state,” owner Lee Williford said. “Durham is the perfect place for this type of programming model to begin and find success, and then be launched throughout a broader footprint.”

Book Harvest, which runs Wash & Learn in Durham, has over 30 free book shelves in the city’s health centers, mental health clinics, Latino Community Credit Union, WIC offices, the Department of Social Services, barbershops, as well as locations in Wake, Orange, Chatham and Alamance counties.

“We want to make sure families have access to books and those books are everywhere in our community,” Stine said. “Rather than having families look for those resources, we are meeting them where they are.”

Last year Book Harvest gave children almost 250,000 books.

And in Durham, Book Harvest’s one-millionth book, “The Day You Begin” by Jacqueline Woodson, was hugged, kissed and went home by a curious 2-year-old.

Reading ‘dead zones’

According to the American Association of Pediatrics, children who begin reading earlier tend to excel in school compared to children who are not exposed to language and books at a young age.

The median income for a family using a laundromat is $28,000, said Adam Echelman, the U.S. executive director of Libraries Without Borders. That’s just above the federal poverty level for a family of four.

A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found there are 7.9 million low-income children, birth through 8 years old in the United States. More than 80 percent, or about 6 million, are not reading on grade level by third grade, the most important predictor for high school graduation and career success.

Libraries Without Borders launched Wash & Learn four years ago in Morrisania, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York.

“We were trying to figure out where the biggest gaps in library services were,” Echelman said. “We looked where the ‘dead zones’ were, where books weren’t.”

He and other volunteers tried giving out children’s books in parks, hospitals and bus stations but had little luck.

“But one day we set up shop outside a laundromat in the Bronx,” Echelman said. “We realized that we were getting some of the most engagement we’ve ever seen.”

People are stuck in laundromats for a couple of hours and return almost every week, which helps volunteers get to know families.

Today Wash & Learn has 20 program locations in eight states: North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Texas, California and New York.

Play-Doh face

In Durham, Deja Benitez was at the laundromat on Chapel Hill Street with her 3-year-old son, Eli.

He drew pictures, made a Play-Doh face and listened to vNadiah Porter, Book Harvest community partnerships manager, read, “I Like Myself” by Karen Beaumont.

Eli smiled and pointed at the main character, who, like him, had curly black hair and a wide smile. The book encourages kids to appreciate themselves for who they are, Porter said.

“Every time I come here, even if Eli isn’t here, I bring him back a new book,” Benitez said. “It’s just so important to have these spaces where I or someone else can read with him. (Wash & Learn) has helped him use his imagination more, and when he sees the pictures (in books) he can figure out what is going to happen in the story.”

Between buying books at thrift stores and taking home free books from the Wash & Learn program, Eli now has over 100 books at home, his mother said. 

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