At West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, principal Akbar Cook's students had a heartbreaking problem. Many of his students, some of them homeless or without access to proper facilities, were facing daily humiliation due to their dirty clothes. Determined to make a difference, Cook has taken an unprecedented step by converting an unused locker room into a free laundromat available to all his students.
The extent of the school's problem became clear to Cook when he saw a teenage girl scream and struggle with a security guard who was trying to look inside her bag:
The police later told me she had dirty clothes in her bag because she was homeless and didn't want anyone to know. She was fighting for her pride.
Students who couldn't afford to wash their clothes were subjects of constant ridicule. Tagged pictures of disheveled students would circulate social media, and one student, Nasirr Cameron, told CNN affiliate WCBS:
I've seen a few kids in the back of the class talk about one of the people in front of the class and how they smelled and how their clothes looked dirty.
Principal Cook wanted more than anything to eliminate this problem from his students' minds, since 85% of the students at West Side High "chronically miss school." He believes bullying is one of the largest causes of that startling statistic:
These are kids, good kids who want to learn, that are missing three to five days a month because they were being bullied because they were dirty. I even changed the school uniform to darker colors so they could go more days without cleaning them, but even with that, students were struggling to have them look clean enough to attend.
Cook applied for and received a $20,000 grant from PSE&G, "one of Newark's main utility companies," to give his students a place to wash their clothes free of charge.
The laundromat has five washers and dryers and a growing supply of laundry detergent donated by people all around the country.
According to Nicole Daniel, the school's operating assistant:
As the story has spread, we have been receiving packages of detergent at the school and through our Amazon wish list page.
School social worker Jamila Hammond told WCBS:
Many times the students may come in because they're embarrassed, they don't look the same, somebody's complaining about a body odor. I would say, 'OK, baby, then we're going to have to do it the old way.' We have soap, we have water. But now with this laundry room we don't have to do that.
The laundromat is open and free of charge between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. An adult supervisor is available to teach any necessary skills.
Cook is proud his students are getting the resources they need to be successful:
We are trying to teach them to navigate their pride. My kids are fighters -- they just need good ways to fight for themselves, and then take pride in what they can do.