ASHBURN, Va. — With his mom and sister standing next to him inside the Fredericksburg, Virginia, homeless shelter, Keyshawn Pendleton did what sixth-graders do: boast about his sports accomplishments. He bragged about his handles in basketball and the time he refused to be tackled during football practice.
But there was another topic that mattered more: clean clothes. He stood inside a burgundy-and-gold laundry room in March at the Brisben Center with three new washers and three new dryers. It mattered to him.
“I don’t have to get teased,” he said. “I can go to school and not have people looking at me weird and asking me why are my pants so wrinkly?”
Keyshawn is among those affected by a program started by Washington Redskins long-snapper Nick Sundberg and his wife, Flor. The Sundbergs were sitting on the couch one night two years ago when their world shifted. Flor was scrolling through social media when she came across a story about washers and dryers and schools. She showed Nick, who replied with a common response: “I never knew this was an issue.”
“This program has exceeded everyone’s expectation. Once we started getting positive feedback, we were like, ‘This is it.'”
Jane Rodgers, former director of the Redskins’ charitable foundation
Turns out it’s a big one. And it has turned into a cause for the Sundbergs and the Redskins, one that has resulted in washers and dryers being installed in 47 Title I schools or community centers in the Washington region, with a goal of adding another 103 within the next year. The foundation has raised more than $450,000, and the objective is to add another $400,000 in funding for 50 more schools by the end of the year.
Within a day of formulating their idea, Nick Sundberg approached the Redskins’ charitable foundation about helping out, and it has since mushroomed.
“I had no idea I’d ever be passionate about washers and dryers,” he said.
That passion led to the formation of the Loads of Love program, whose acronym — LOL — was hatched by Flor. They didn’t want something that sounded too serious or might have a negative connotation. This fit perfectly.
They sent out emails, asking schools and centers to submit a proposal. During a conference call with school officials from Prince George’s County in suburban Maryland, Sundberg said they were told, “Washers and dryers are the No. 1 thing asked for in donations that we don’t get.”
“I’ve been giving money to schools for years and I never heard of this as an issue,” said Sundberg, who is heading into his 10th season with the Redskins.
Next came the hard work. They needed to test the program and determine the costs, so they started with three schools and two homeless shelters. It required an initial $50,000 investment (Sundberg matched a $25,000 donation by the Redskins) to cover the $10,000 cost at each site.
The cost involves more than just washers and dryers. At Magnolia Elementary School in suburban Maryland, for example, they had to convert a custodial closet into a laundry room. There’s money for contractors, lawyers and so forth.
“Originally, I looked up washers and dryers and thought, ‘Oh, you can get a washer and dryer for $1,000 bucks. It’s not that big a deal,'” Sundberg said. “Then you start going through the process, and I totally forgot about electric and plumbing and HVAC and drywall and having a space and whether a room is available.”
It took six months to get the first three sites ready. The early returns were positive, and the Redskins and Sundberg grew the program.
“We forget how important it is to have clean clothes, especially for children. It’s so easy to become a target with the bullying, so easy to pick on a child who has less than the next child.”
Kim Lally, developmental director for the Brisben Center
At the Redskins’ Welcome Home Luncheon in August 2018, team owner Dan Snyder announced a $100,000 donation. Proceeds from the luncheon went to the LOL program, and it raised $375,000. Sundberg continues to donate (he is matching another $25,000) while also serving as the public face of the program.
“When we first came in, we were thinking about homeless students,” said Jane Rodgers, who was the director of the Redskins’ charitable foundation when the LOL program started. They quickly realized the program would have a much broader impact.
“It’s offsetting another cost [for families],” Rodgers said. “This program has exceeded everyone’s expectation. Once we started getting positive feedback, we were like, ‘This is it.'”
Seeing the impact
The third-grade boy entered the Magnolia Elementary School laundry room carrying a bag of clothes. He didn’t need to bring his clothes to school in the past, but his aunt (who is his guardian) was undergoing chemotherapy and the little boy did not want her to be burdened with his laundry. So he toted the bag, which contained sheets and clothing, to school. He was led to the laundry room and given a tutorial on what to do. He took it from there.
Giving back | Impacting lives | Providing access to clean clothes
— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) February 28, 2019
“He was a bed-wetter and he didn’t want her to wash his clothes anymore,” said Magnolia’s principal, Dr. Phyllis Gillens. “When he came in, you could tell in his face this was something he wanted to do. Those things really drive me and [help people] see the impact of having the program here. We have families in need, and sometimes you don’t know a family is in need until you start having conversations. Then we say, ‘OK, this is a way we can assist you and make it easier.'”
Gillens sees proof of the program’s success in students’ faces and hears about it from teachers.
“We’re not tracking them to gather that type of data,” Gillens said. “It’s more, when you see them and you just know that they are happy now. It’s just a feeling and sense you get they’re happy and they’re taking on this responsibility. Teachers tell me the children are happier in the class because they have on a clean top, and before, they didn’t.”
There are NFL players who can relate.
In a video presentation at the luncheon last August, running back Kapri Bibbs, who once lived in a house with 23 others, said some weeks he would wear the same clothes to school three days in a row.
“We didn’t have the money to wash,” Bibbs said. “It seems like something that’s small from the outside looking in, but kids come around, ‘Oh, he’s dirty. He don’t got this; he don’t got that. He stinks. He don’t got deodorant.’ You’re feeling like an outcast when you’re noticing you’re that kid that doesn’t have.”
The Sundbergs can empathize, as well. At least when it comes to sitting in class with clothes that aren’t the newest or brightest or, at times, the cleanest. Neither grew up wealthy — “underprivileged,” Flor said. Nick grew up an only child in suburban Phoenix; his mother smoked.
“I remember the very first time I went to school and sitting in class and someone was like, ‘God, who smells like smoke?’ I was like, ‘Oh damn,'” he said.
“The next day, I picked out my clothes and threw them in the dryer with five dryer sheets and waited 20 minutes to hopefully get the smell out. I did that every single day until we moved my junior year of high school. I was lucky enough that I had the ability to do that.”
One of his best friends in elementary school wore the same clothes every day.
“He got picked on all the time,” Sundberg said. “I remember seeing how defeated he looked in those situations, and I remember trying to make him feel better, so [now] being older and being able to possibly curb some of those issues coming up now is something I absolutely want to do.”
Flor was born in Mexico, and her family settled in Delano, California — about a two hours’ drive north of Los Angeles — when she was about 5 years old. They lived with family members for “a couple years” while her dad worked in the fields picking grapes and strawberries and split time as a mechanic.
“I remember going to laundromats with my parents to get clothes cleaned and how much hassle that was,” said Flor, now a licensed attorney in Virginia and California. “Where I grew up, a lot of migrant farmers live in labor camps. You live in a trailer park camp or shack connected to the fields where your parents work. There’s barely running water and toilets, much less washers and dryers.”
The workers at the Brisben Center often hear of families facing similar circumstances.
“Sometimes before you get into the shelter, you might be living in your car,” said Kim Lally, the developmental director at the Brisben Center. “And then you have to make a decision: ‘I have $6, so am I going to get burgers for my kids tonight or am I going to have to take that $6 and go do laundry?’ Well, you know what’s going to win out. We were hearing that a lot. We take clean clothing and having a washer and dryer at our disposal for granted.”
The need for the program was obvious in many places.
Sixth-grader Keyshawn Pendleton’s mother, Mishanda Green — who has since moved the family out of the Brisben Center — beamed as she showed a visitor the laundry room in March. During her time at the center, she became a de facto mayor of the room. She would show new guests how to work the machines — not everyone there can read. Green also would clean the machines to keep them looking new.
“I’m thankful to have them because I’ve been in many places and I didn’t have a washer and dryer,” Green said. “It’s costly when you’re a single parent, and you don’t always have the funds. Even at the laundromat when you put money in the machine, they’re still not dry. You put the clothes in here, one spin and they’re dry.”
Lally offered additional insight.
“We forget how important it is to have clean clothes, especially for children,” Lally said. “It’s so easy to become a target with the bullying, so easy to pick on a child who has less than the next child. I guarantee you any child who walks out this door for school Monday through Friday has clean clothing. I can’t stress how important that is.”
During the 2017-18 school year, a girl approached Patrick DiSalvo, the mental health practitioner at KIPP DC WILL Academy, with a problem.
She didn’t have a clean uniform. KIPP had yet to set up the LOL program, so there was one option for DiSalvo: wash the clothes himself. Sometimes, other teachers at the school did the same.
“It’s not a conversation where they come in and are like, ‘Hey, I need a uniform,'” DiSalvo said. “You can see the demeanor and the body language. They’re not coming to me with a proud chest and a chin picked up. Usually it’s like, ‘I’m not in a great situation; I need a little help.'”
DiSalvo doubled as the school’s basketball coach. Before he had a car, he would lug a bag of 15 uniforms home on the bus every night so he could wash them. In February, the ribbon was cut on the school’s new laundry room — a converted custodial closet.
There are similar stories around the country, and this program aims to reduce that number. The key will be where it goes next.
As of now, the Redskins’ program is limited to the D.C. region. Sundberg said he would like to find a way for it to help other areas; he has heard from players about wanting to do something in their hometowns. For Sundberg and the Redskins, it could be providing a grant or, perhaps, advice.
“You try not to think about where you are and only about where you can go,” Sundberg said. “One of the things that got me so amped about this program was this isn’t a region-specific issue. This is a nationwide issue.”
It leads to conflicting emotions. Sometimes at the ceremonies, parents will come up to the Sundbergs and thank them. Nick admits to feeling tears well up. But he also knows what the program is doing helps — and that there’s more that can be done.
“It’s been a huge boost for a lot of our kids,” DiSalvo said. “Math, reading, all these things are super important, and why we work with students is to teach them these things. But if we don’t have that baseline, providing them dignity and a safe space and helping them feel good, it’s really hard to get to that other level.”