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!
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