Changing the world with a washer and dryer
Watch a TV newscast, and you’ll see the daily parade of arrests and mug shots, causing elected officials to say, “We’ve got to do something about our crime problem.” It may not seem like it, but many people are doing something. Joe Smith of Chattanooga is one of those people. He isn’t perfect. He will tell you, he has a checkered past. A lifetime ago, he did some drugs, and got into trouble. He considered himself a failure, and planned to commit suicide. He ran out of gas before he reached his suicidal destination. “I even failed at that,” he said. A friend saw him on the side of the road, and talked him out of giving up.
From that moment on, he has lived a life of service. He used his athletic skills to encourage at-risk youths to put on boxing gloves, channeling their energy into something constructive. He founded the West Side Boxing Club, which morphed into Chattanooga’s YCAP (Youth Community Action Project). For more than twenty years, Smith, with his family and friends, has shepherded the kids nobody believed in. He cannot boast of a 100% success rate, but the streets are safer because Smith took time to care.
Early on, Smith saw a pressing need beyond the services he could provide at the gym. He and his wife Paula took one of the troubled kids into their own home as a foster child. That was in 1991, and the young man would be the first of nineteen taken in by the Smiths and their own two children.
In the meantime, Smith expanded the YCAP program, far beyond boxing. He provided academic assistance, and he began visiting schools to check in on “his kids.” (He has since become a Hamilton County school board member). YCAP also introduced a woodworking program, giving the teens a chance to earn some pride, as well as a few bucks.
Certainly, Smith uses his personal testimony in his work each day, but when I asked about his most effective tool, the answer surprised me. “A washer and dryer,” he replied.
“There was a 12 year-old boy,” he said. We will call him JT. “He came to YCAP every day, and we noticed a problem. The other kids were making fun of him, calling him names, and we don’t allow that. I decided to get to the bottom of it. He had bad body odor. It was time to have a serious talk with him.”
“I told him, ‘JT, you’re twelve years old. You’re becoming a young man. You have to start taking a bath every day. You’ve got to use soap, and you’ve got to use deodorant.’ I bought him some, just to be sure.”
Smith said JT seemed to understand this straight talk, but the problem continued.
Smith said, “We were driving him around one day, and we realized that odor was embedded in his clothes. There was no amount of bathing that could conquer that smell.”
Smith’s wife went to the store and got JT some new clothes. But within a few days, it was evident that there was a deeper problem.
“It was a cold February day,” Smith said, “and I took him home. First thing I noticed was a water hose from the house next door, going through his bathroom window. That was his family’s only water, because their water had been shut off. Yhat ice cold water was all they had to clean anything with.”
That’s when Smith had a life-changing idea. “I’ve made a lot of friends over the years,” he said, “and I’ve never been afraid to ask for help. So with their help, I got a washer and dryer for the YCAP building, and it’s the best ministry tool I’ve ever had.”
What are the healing powers of a washer and dryer? “Here’s what happened,” he said. “We started providing free washing and drying for our families. Mama, or Auntie, or Grandma brought their wash, and they were my captive audience for two hours. It was like a counseling session. I’d ask them why they were doing drugs, and tell them their kids were going to grow up doing the same thing, because that’s all they knew. For some of them, I was the first person who showed any interest in their family. They really listened. I think it helped a bunch of them, but if it just helped one, it was well worth it.”
He concluded, “I know we saved them some money, but we might have saved some lives too. It all happened because of that washer and dryer.”
Smith has learned the solution isn’t about money, or the latest trendy programs. It is about building relationships. “People want to help,” he said. “but they don’t know how. Just tell them to call me.”
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of the book “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best columns, available for $23 at ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact David at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org