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In Brooklyn Laundry, a New Program Mixes Reading with the Suds

Susan Notes: Singlehandedly, Georgia Hedrick, a longtime teacher and our favorite cartoonist, conducts a laundromat literacy program in Reno. She visits laundromats, as probable sites of people without a lot of money, and hands out books to the young children she finds there, counseling their parents on the importance of reading aloud.


NEW YORK -- For most people at the laundry, once the clothes are loaded into the machines, the best way to kill time is to watch the suds spin around, leaf through a magazine or watch TV.

Not for the kids at the Clean Rite Center in the rough-and-tumble Brownsville section of Brooklyn. "Wash and Learn," a new reading program at the coin-operated laundry, transports youngsters to faraway places through books, while the arcade games sit idle and televisions go unwatched.

The program, which twice a week sends tutors into the laundry to teach young children while the adults do the wash, is the brainchild of Georgina Smith, a science teacher at a public school in East New York and a recent graduate of Brooklyn College's School of Education.

"I would drive by here every night on my way home from school and I would see all these kids playing video games or with their heads down, but I never saw one book," she said. "I thought, `There's got to be something better for these kids to do."'

So she persuaded her adviser to let her start the program for her master's thesis. Then, in April, the owners of the laundry got on board _ providing about $12,000 for books, supplies and other expenses _ and the project was a go.

Smith carted several crates filled with books and read with the kids. Soon her pupils began reading to each other. Some kids began bringing their homework so Smith could help them. Then their parents got involved.

And the kids started coming in droves.

The program's success has been so undeniable that Smith got the college to allow other students to help out for credit, and she opened another branch at a Clean Rite in Sunset Park.

"No matter where you teach, whether it's New York or Des Moines, Iowa, if you can engage the kids they will respond," Smith said.

For the kids, the program's unscripted atmosphere seems to be the draw.

"I like to read with all these people," said 7-year-old Brandon Bacchus as he read "Mummies in the Morning." "It's not like school, it's more fun and you're not doing stuff because the teacher tells you to."

Brandon's mother, Martha Bacchus, said she didn't mind driving the nearly 10 miles from their home in Queens so her son and her 9-year-old daughter, Mycah Bacchus, could read with the other kids while she did their laundry.

"It's a wonderful program," she said. "It really lets these kids do something productive, and it allows parents to get their kids the tutoring they might need even if they can't afford it."

The benefits cut all ways. For many of the Brooklyn College students, the program allows them their first hands-on experience dealing with children.

"When I started I really thought I wanted to work with little kids, but then I had an experience with this fourth-grade girl here," said senior Amy Dempsey. "She told me she didn't like to read, didn't want to read, but then she told me she liked to write poetry and with that connection I talked her into reading more. Now I want to work with kids around that age."

"It's things like that that really make you want to do this job," she said.

And for the laundry's owners, who own 60 others like it all over the East Coast, the program is good corporate citizenship.

"You know how busy our lives are and you always have to do chores," said Clean Rite executive John Hayes. "That we can help create an atmosphere where parents can get that done and their kids can learn something is a perfect fit for us."

Smith called the program and teaching her "salvation." For years she worked as a vice president at Cablevision Systems Corp., but after the Sept. 11 attack she decided she wanted to give something back.

"I think a lot of New Yorkers have over the past few years reassessed what they were doing," she said. "And I always wanted to teach."

— Lukas I. Alpert, Associated Press
Newsday
2004-11-28
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