You de­serve good things

When prin­ci­pal Ak­bar Cook no­ticed his stu­dents were be­ing bul­lied over dirty clothes they couldn’t af­ford to wash, he opened a free laun­dro­mat at his school!

Woman's World - - Contents - — Alexan­dra Pol­lock

Vice Prin­ci­pal Ak­bar Cook shook his head as po­lice of­fi­cers sat down to in­ter­view one of his fe­male stu­dents at West Side High School in Ne­wark, New Jer­sey. Mo­ments be­fore, he’d watched in shock as the girl had hurled a wa­ter bot­tle at the school se­cu­rity guard when she’d tried to search the teen’s back­pack.

“Prin­ci­pal Cook, we opened her bag our­selves and it was just full of dirty clothes,” the of­fi­cer ex­plained. “The girl is home­less and didn’t want any­one to find out…she was em­bar­rassed.”

Ak­bar’s heart heaved with sad­ness, be­cause he knew this was not his only stu­dent fac­ing such is­sues. In fact, many boys and girls had fam­i­lies who couldn’t af­ford wash­ers or the cost of us­ing a laun­dro­mat.

In­stead of fac­ing school bul­lies who’d post pho­tos of their stained clothes on so­cial me­dia, many stu­dents had just stopped com­ing to school al­to­gether.

Though he’d tried to ad­dress the prob­lem by giv­ing out free West Side shirts and shorts from the school store, Ak­bar knew that wasn’t nearly enough. I have to do more, he thought. I can’t watch my stu­dents go through this.

When he had first signed on as vice prin­ci­pal at West Side three years ear­lier, Ak­bar had worked with the MCJ Ame­lior Foun­da­tion, which helps find fund­ing for school pro­grams. To­gether, they’d started the “Lights On” project, leav­ing the school open un­til 11 pm three nights a week to keep stu­dents off the streets and give them a safe and fun place to gather.

Maybe they can help with this too, he hoped, as he pre­sented a new idea to the MCJ ad­vi­sory coun­cil. “Can we cre­ate a school laun­dro­mat with a few wash­ers and dry­ers?” Ak­bar pleaded.

The PSEG Foun­da­tion, a mem­ber of the coun­cil, was also present dur­ing Ak­bar’s pitch and read­ily agreed to fund the project. “We’ll give you $ 20,000 to buy five wash­ing ma­chines, five dry­ers and sup­plies!” they promised.

And this fall, af­ter two years of plan­ning and pa­tience, Ak­bar, now head prin­ci­pal, opened the first school laun­dro­mat in the coun­try.

I hope the kids will feel com­fort­able us­ing it, he wor­ried. And when a small group of brave stu­dents en­tered the room, thank­ing him as they piled clothes into the ma­chines be­fore head­ing off to classes, Ak­bar’s eyes welled with tears of love.

And as news of the fa­cil­ity spread, more and more stu­dents be­gan to come wash their clothes, while sup­port from the lo­cal com­mu­nity and be­yond be­gan to pour in.

To date, West Side has re­ceived thou­sands of dol­lars in do­na­tions to Friend­sofwest­side.org from com­pa­nies, the com­mu­nity and ev­ery­day peo­ple all over the world who were sim­ply touched by Ak­bar’s care for his stu­dents. In fact, they’ve had enough de­ter­gent do­nated to wash more than 250,000 loads of clothes!

But for Prin­ci­pal Cook, that’s just the ic­ing on the cake. “Know­ing that my ba­bies are taken care of, that’s the best thing for me,” Ak­bar smiles. “All I want is to show them love, to be the one who al­ways an­swers when they need help. That’s the true mean­ing of FAM­ILY: ‘For­get About Me, I Love You.’”

Prin­ci­pal Ak­bar Cook (sec­ond from left) with his stu­dents in front of hun­dreds of do­na­tions for their school laun­dry room

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