Store Owners Launch Early Childhood Literacy and Learning Program in the Chicago Suburbs
Laundry operators Bill Norteman and Jim Cowen know what it’s like to try to do the family laundry with children in tow. As the co-owners of JetXpress Laundry in Elgin, Ill., they witness it firsthand on a regular basis.
“Parents often have small children with them while doing their laundry,” Norteman said. “These kids are often glued to mom’s iPhone or the television, but wouldn’t a book be a better option?”
That option recently received a significant shot in the arm, thanks to a new early childhood literacy program launched this past April at JetXpress.
The laundry owners have teamed up with Elgin Partnership for Early Learning to serve families at their store in the Chicago suburb – which is a place that many of the community’s residents visit on a weekly basis.
“Specifically, we provide the space for this new program,” Norteman said. “The village of Elgin provided a grant to EPEL, and they oversee scheduling volunteers to come in and spend time reading to the children throughout the week, as well as changing out the reading materials that families can share together.”
“Families spend an average of two and a half hours at a laundromat, so this the perfect place to promote meaningful interactions of talking, reading, singing, playing, and sharing activities with their children while they wait for their laundry,” noted Amber Peters, director of EPEL, which was formed in 2011 as a collaboration of area partners to help engage the community in preparing young children to succeed in school and life. “Our Language in the Laundromat program is set up to engage families. This literacy platform gives our partners a space to offer resources, while people wait for their laundry. We have partners that will be coming in to hold story time with children, enroll children in preschool, offer financial assistance, sign up children for physicals, provide glucose testing for the parents, and offer food resources – just to list a few. We have to reach deeper into the community to serve families. We rely on our partners’ expertise and resources to make that local impact.”
There is messaging placed throughout JetXpress Laundry that talks about activities parents can share with their children while washing, drying and folding clothes – such as color identification; sorting socks; seriation; and finding shapes, letters, numbers, and so on. There also are questions on the washers and dryers for children to think about, as well as ideas of activities to do while waiting.
“Elgin Partnership for Early Learning, JetXpress, Elgin Township and our community partners are turning laundry time into talk, read and sing time!” Peters said.
The Language in the Laundromat program kicked off in mid-April with a “clothesline-cutting” ceremony that was attended by a number of local dignitaries – including Elgin Mayor David Kaptain; Franklin Ramirez, supervisor of Elgin Township; Tony Sanders, CEO of the local school district; and Carol Medal, executive director of Elgin’s Gail Borden Library.
This event also featured a lively and interactive story time with volunteer readers from the local library, along with a number of educational games for the children.
“JetXpress Laundry was excited to see so many people from the community turn out for the kickoff,” Norteman said. “The number of different community organizations who have an interest and a stake in ensuring the young children are ready for kindergarten was certainly a surprise to us. The old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ really rang true at this event. And it warms my heart to see so many people interested in ensuring the future for these young children.”
Early childhood research is in agreement that reading and talking to children is the single most important gift you can give them.
“You are building a child’s brain, as well as building language development,” Peters explained. “Reading should start the day a baby is born, if not while in the womb. When you read to your child, he or she is hearing how to form words, sounds and language, as well as learning the importance of books. Reading stimulates the child’s imagination, helps build brain development, develops early literacy skills, and aids in teaching children to sit and listen to a story.”
In addition, research shows a gap between the number of words lower-income children hear, versus their higher-income peers. This, in turn, leads to a gap in early vocabulary and kindergarten readiness.
“Simple, everyday actions like talking, reading and singing to young children from birth can build their brains and set them up for success in school and beyond,” Peters reiterated. “We know that every child won’t be enrolled in an early education childcare setting before kindergarten, so bringing opportunities to everyday places that families visit – such as the laundromat – offers them an opportunity to engage their child wherever they go.
“Nothing makes us happier than stopping by JetXpress Laundry and seeing a parent or sibling sitting back near the bookcase reading to a younger child. The time that volunteers or family members are taking to read with a child is modeling the importance of books, while building language and brain development during this most critical time from birth to age 5.”
JetXpress was initially referred to the Elgin Partnership for Early Learning by Coin Laundry Association President and CEO Brian Wallace, as an ideal candidate for the Language in the Laundromat program, Norteman explained.
“It’s rare that a business can find a way to give back to the community in a meaningful way,” he acknowledged. “As business owners, we spend our days focused on customer retention and problem solving, and rarely have the individual time – so, when Amber from EPEL reached out to us and explained her proposal, we were happy to partner with her.
“We feel the laundry is a good place for an early learning and reading program,” he added. “By having volunteers spend time in the laundry reading donated books to young pre-K children, we hope to help increase the literacy rate in our community. These are people who are going to be in the laundry anyway, and these are children who are looking for entertainment – so this program seems like an ideal partnership.
“We are happy that the CLA thought to refer Amber and the EPEL to JetXpress Laundry, and we will continue to look for opportunities to help make our community a better place.”