Thinking back to the days when our four children were young, I remember the never-ending stream of laundry overflowing from our old-fashioned laundry chute. Yes, I admit I grumbled about having to do all that laundry. Now as I learn about the Clean Kids project, I realize being able to send our kids off to school in clean clothes each day should have felt more like a blessing than a chore.
We do not count our blessings often enough, but Pastors Eric and Beth Utto-Galarneau and their congregation at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Lacey are determined not only to count their blessings but to share them with families in the neighboring North Thurston Public Schools. Clean Kids is their latest example of living the Golden Rule.
Laundry is just one of the many worries of the 798 children and youth who were identified as being homeless in the North Thurston Public Schools last year. According to Brenda McAferty, North Thurston Homeless Liaison, “We have families who are sharing housing due to economic hardships, living in hotels, shelters, cars, and campgrounds. When prioritizing their needs, of course, they choose food for the table and gas for the car before spending money on laundry.” This often leaves children attending school with dirty clothes, which in turn affects attendance, self-confidence, and ultimately, grades.
In many ways it is easy to see why the St. Mark’s co-pastors are so motivated to continue giving to their community and why Clean Kids is so important to them. After meeting as students at Pacific Lutheran University, Pastors Eric and Beth began their married life living in a Family Shelter, where he served as co-director, and she commuted to her job teaching third grade. Pastor Beth said, “It was an overnight shelter, so we lived in one room smaller than half our office at St. Mark’s. However, that experience has shaped who we are.”
The Washington natives, who married in 1987, soon realized they wanted to serve the community together as church leaders, so they began working toward advanced degrees in Divinity. After serving at a church in Lake Tahoe for four years, the road brought them back to the Northwest. They co-pastored the next ten years at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Aberdeen.
The number of homeless youth in their new community was growing, so they began working with Community Services in Grays County to set up an overnight shelter in the church for youth aged 13-17 who had survived mainly by couch surfing. The high school was across the parking lot, so the location worked perfectly.
“Four years ago when the opportunity to co-pastor at St. Mark’s came about, we were so happy to be welcomed into this amazing community,” Pastor Eric said. As couples often do, Pastor Beth finished his thought, “We come at the role of pastor differently, but we always end at the same spot.” When they arrived at St. Mark’s, the Utto-Galarneaus quickly learned that the congregation was reaching out across College Street to the 700 students at Mountain View Elementary. They wanted to expand that ministry. The “Safe and Warm” project allowed church volunteers to help supervise students in a warm classroom at Mountain View before the start of school.
The Student Garden Project soon evolved. In addition to the community garden that is located on the church property and run in conjunction with Lacey Parks and Recreation, 44 garden spaces were established for Mountain View students. During the first harvest a little first-grader with strawberry juice dripping from his hand came up to Pastor Eric and said, “This is the first strawberry I have ever eaten.” That experience reinforced the garden’s impact. The children plant and harvest the crops, and then pack them up for the Thurston County Food Bank. The Food Bank returns the produce to Mountain View in weekend backpacks for students in need to take home.
About 18 months ago, Pastor Eric met with Brenda McAferty to discuss other pressing needs for homeless youth. From this conversation, Clean Kids emerged as an idea. He told his congregation that with $10,000 and 1,000 volunteer hours, they could make Clean Kids a reality. Both time and money soon exceeded expectations. With retrofitted space, equipment donated by McKinney’s Appliances, and a $7,500 grant from the North Thurston Education Foundation, the vision became real. By mid-September dirty clothes were sloshing and clean clothes tumbling. “The process for families is simple and dignified,” according to Brenda McAferty. Once they have a voucher, the family contacts Nancy Grant or Marilyn Alf, the Clean Kids Laundry Stewards, for an appointment.
After I toured the facility with Pastor Eric, he pointed to the land behind the garden plots, and said, “I am concerned about the 60 Unaccompanied Homeless Youth (couch surfers) in the district, mostly high school students,” he said, “but stay tuned, that’s for another story.”
For more information, contact either Beth or Eric Utto-Galarneau, pastors at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at 360-491-2052, or Brenda McAferty, 360-561-2095.