A South Jersey school has eliminated a reason for some students not to come to school: that they don’t have anything to wear.

Pinelands Regional Junior High School in Little Egg Harbor Township has a laundry on campus for students unable to wash their clothes at home. Students drop off their dirty laundry in the morning and school officials wash, fold, and return it the next day.

The Legacy Center opened in November and is also available twice a month to residents, said principal Eric Pschorr. Although the median household income for the district is about $66,000, the area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the economic downturn in Atlantic City, Pschorr said. The center fills a desperate need in the Ocean County community of about 21,000, Pschorr said.

Cathy Schaffer, a special education teacher who helped set up the Legacy Center at Pinelands Regional Junior High School, stocks books for children in the free laundry dryer room for the underserved population, at the school in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer
Cathy Schaffer, a special education teacher who helped set up the Legacy Center at Pinelands Regional Junior High School, stocks books for children in the free laundry dryer room for the underserved population, at the school in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

”They’re coming in with bags of clothes,” he said.

Located in a wing of the school, which enrolls about 550 seventh and eighth graders, the center is meticulously organized, with clothes on hangers or neatly folded. A row of cabinets is lined with toiletries. There also are a food pantry and a refrigerator stocked mostly with pizza and rolls.

The washers are in a former darkroom, while the dryers are across the hall in a former office, which has a collection of free books that visitors can take. There is also an area where students, who may be homeless, can freshen up and wash their hair.

It’s modeled after a center created in 2018 by Akbar Cook, principal at Newark’s West Side High School, who noticed some students were skipping school because they were bullied for wearing dirty clothes. He converted an old locker room into a laundry room.

Cook’s story went viral, and donations of laundry supplies poured into his school. He caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who made a $500,000 contribution during a visit. Cook also appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, and she donated $50,000.

The Social Conscience Project, a newly formed nonprofit inspired by Cook, has since launched two centers in East Orange and Little Egg Harbor Township schools. A fourth is scheduled to open in March in Asbury Park, and a fifth there in September.

“The idea is to give all students a level playing field,” said Michael Levine, the project’s executive director. The project, composed of volunteers, raised about $10,000 to purchase the appliances for each center, he said. Plans call for at least five more centers in underserved districts in the state.

Like the other centers, the Pinelands Regional facility has a “Dress for Success” wardrobe available for parents returning to work. There are also two computers, where they can work on resumés or compile employment applications.

Three teachers help operate the center with assistance from students, who sort clothing donations and learn life skills.

Allison Laurence, a health and physical education teacher who helped set up the Legacy Center at Pinelands Regional Junior High School, folds donated items available for people who need them at the school in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Inquirer
Allison Laurence, a health and physical education teacher who helped set up the Legacy Center at Pinelands Regional Junior High School, folds donated items available for people who need them at the school in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

So far, the center has fulfilled about 50 requests for laundry services, toiletries, and food, said Daniel Grasso, a social studies teacher. The center is open to the community after school on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, he said.

On a recent morning, a student came in to get a new book. Another ripped her pants in gym class and got a new pair. Teachers say students wearing sneakers that are too small have gotten new ones.

“We love being teachers, but we are constantly in this room because it gives us such joy,” said English teacher Cathy Schaffer.

Schools in Camden and Philadelphia have washers and dryers to help needy students, too.

Almost every school in Camden has a washer and dryer, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. More than half of the children in New Jersey’s poorest city of almost 74,000 live in poverty.

“We’ve got to do what we can,” McCombs said. Some students, self-conscious about their appearance, may skip school to avoid bullying or teasing, she said.

In Philadelphia, the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School installed a washer and dryer about a year after opening in 1999, said founder Veronica Joyner. Staff wash students’ uniforms or send laundry detergent and tokens home for families without access to laundry services, she said.

The school, which enrolls more than 1,000 students in grades first through 12th, has a room filled with clothing to dress students from head to toe, Joyner said. She will even help with fresh hairdos.

“I’m just very determined to see that these children are learning and pulling themselves out of poverty,” Joyner said. “I want them to look good and be proud.”

School nurse Anna Marie Winder does a two-strand twist on a student's hair at the Mathematics, Civics and Science Charter School in North Philadelphia.
Avi Steinhardt / For the Inquirer
School nurse Anna Marie Winder does a two-strand twist on a student's hair at the Mathematics, Civics and Science Charter School in North Philadelphia.