Congratulations on being named Young Australian of the Year! That must feel pretty amazing?
When Nick and I found out that we were nominated we were completely blown away and almost felt guilty because there are all these people behind us helping us. We still say they pulled the wrong names out of the hat! We are really humbled and excited.
For those who haven’t heard, can you tell us about Orange Sky Laundry?
In October 2014 my best mate Nick and I had this really crazy idea to improve the hygiene standards of the homeless by putting two washers and dryers in the back of an old van and driving around to parks and drop-in centres to wash clothes for people who were experiencing homelessness. It started as a bit of a fun project to get lots of our mates involved as we found that after high school finished there was lots of energy within our friendship circles but not a lot of things harnessing that energy and providing a really fun and flexible platform to volunteer. We thought we would start something and came up with the idea for the laundry and it’s just taken off. We just launched our fifth van down on the Gold Coast last week.
Wow, that’s amazing! You also have vans in Melbourne and Sydney as well as your hometown of Brisbane. What’s the blue sky dream?
I suppose the dream is just to continue to help as many people as possible. Our mission is to positively connect with people who find themselves homeless within the community through washing but also through the conversations that take place at the van. You put your clothes in, it takes about one minute to set up and from there there’s not a lot to do so you sit down and have a chat. Those positive and genuine interactions that our volunteers have with all of our friends on the street are what makes Orange Sky really powerful.
What does having clean clothes mean to the people you help?
It’s such a simple thing, just having fresh, clean clothes and a chat but it can have a really significant impact. Just last week we were trialling a service in Logan and we were talking to a bloke and afterwards he told us that it was great to get his washing done but he hadn’t actually spoken to another human for three days. It really reiterated the power of conversation.
It’s almost like the clothes are a catalyst for the conversation.
Exactly, it’s one of our favourite sayings. We always say that the most important thing we carry in all our vans are the six orange chairs we pull out at every location. The washers and dryers are great but realistically we’ve had days where the tap or the power box might be locked but the volunteers have still gone out there and had a chat.
What were some of the challenges you faced in the early days?
Like anything new and exciting there are always challenges. The first one was people telling us that we’re crazy and it’s just not going to work. It only took one yes and that was from Australia’s leading Laundromat service company. We had a meeting with them and told them our dream and I guess we managed to convince them because half an hour later we were downstairs in the warehouse picking out which machines we were going to take. That was the first yes and the real catalyst for it happening. A month later we had a van all sorted.
When you created Orange Sky Laundry, you were studying a Bachelor of Engineering/Bachelor of Commerce. Did you always think you’d end up in the not-for-profit sector or was that a bit of a surprise?
I’m still actually studying that but I suppose at the core of any engineering is about finding creative solutions for problems so really I don’t think I’m too far removed from that. Definitely some of the stuff I’m doing on a daily basis wouldn’t be what I thought I would be doing at age 21, namely doing countless loads of washing but Nick and I are both really excited. Every day is different.
Most 21-year-olds can barely keep their own clothes clean and here you guys are manning these vans a lot of the time. Did you guys have any experience before you set out on this adventure?
Not at all. Nick and I always talk about one of our biggest strengths is that we’ve never had any experience in doing laundry or not-for-profit work, a tiny bit in the homelessness sector but we’ve found that being agile and responsive has helped us a lot. Also looking at things through a different lens, a lot of organisations have been around for 50 or 100 years and have really set ways of doing stuff where as we’re adapting and changing to meet the needs of each location but also each person that we talk to.
What have been the greatest rewards so far?
I think the greatest reward is just the people we meet. We hear some absolutely incredible stories from people on the street to CEOs of big companies who are keen to support Orange Sky Laundry. Also seeing someones face when you give them back that clean, dry laundry is pretty special.
What inspires you?
Doing things differently and creativity.
What is the best advice you’ve received?
I think the best advice is things you learn for yourself, the challenges you overcome and mistakes that you make. That’s how I learn the most, by giving something a go and really finding out if it works or not. The biggest thing I’ve learnt would be that everyone has ideas and everyone can talk about them, it’s that next day when it comes to putting it into action that makes all the difference. Nick and I are just two ordinary blokes from Brisbane who really had no idea about laundry or the homelessness sector but we gave it a crack one day and here we are 15-months later.
How can our readers lend a hand?
We launched on the Gold Coast last week and we were lucky enough to have received over 100 volunteer applications, which was really amazing. The more volunteers we have the more stable and agile our service is to respond and grow. We currently operate six days a week down on the Gold Coast with nine different services so volunteering through our website is a massive thing. The vans all cost money to run so financial donations are greatly appreciated. It costs us $6 to wash and dry someones clothes on the street and the last one is really spreading our message. We believe that everyone is really only one or two steps away from being homeless so spreading the message on social media is a major part of Orange Sky Laundry’s success.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt on this journey so far?
I think one of the biggest lessons is that homelessness is only one or two bad decisions away. The very first person we ever washed clothes for went to school 500-metres up the road from me, studied engineering and was working as a fully qualified engineer. Three or four poor decisions or bad life turns and he found himself living on the street. At the end of the day, we’re all people, we’re all made of the same stuff.