Meet Them Where They Are: Wash & Learn Helps Bridge SA’s Digital Divide

By Cassie Korcel

SAN ANTONIO — Libraries Without Borders US (LWB US) is a nonprofit organization that delivers access to information, education and cultural resources. From parks in Baltimore to laundromats in San Antonio, LWB US designs innovative tools and programs that meet people where they are with the resources they need most.

Fundamental to our work is designing and implementing innovative programs that reimagine libraries, often by transforming nontraditional spaces into hubs for community learning and engagement. With this mission in mind, we literally took our work to the cleaners – prompting the birth of our Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI).

Established in 2015, WALI began transforming laundromats into pop-up libraries and digital access hubs. Why laundromats, of all places? The average laundromat user has an income of $28,000 and 25 percent of people in this income bracket don’t have access to broadband internet. Again, this effort is all about meeting people where they’re at.

By partnering with local libraries and organizations, LWB US brings not only books, computers and internet connection directly to laundromats, but also digital skills programming and curated resources that promote literacy, digital access, health education, legal information and other topics. Through this effort, LWB US ensures that community members have easy access to critical learning resources – all while doing their wash.

In March 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, we had to completely reimagine our work and thus shifted gears in response to the community’s swiftly growing needs. 

Thanks to a nearly $50,000 grant we received from the Area Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, we were able to design and implement the ConnectED Technology Kit program, an initiative to provide our constituents with a personal computer, a mobile hotspot and one year of internet service and a curated educational resource packet. In 2020, LWB US successfully distributed more than 120 of ConnectED Tech Kits to families in San Antonio, ultimately integrating this program with WALI.                                                           

“This is a great opportunity for families who don’t have laptops to get them the tools they need to further their education. Along with older generations that fear technology and think it is beyond their reach,” said a grateful program beneficiary after receiving a kit in March 2021 at LWB US’s latest laundromat partner, Laundry Rey’s – an event we organized along with our partner, BibiloTech.

Laundry Rey’s owner, Samuel Hayes, was all smiles after helping install a bookshelf inside his laundromat. Let’s just say his pride was palpable.

“I’m just excited that we are kicking this off and we’re getting it going. It’s already been so great to have the bookshelves and the books. The kids love being able to come and grab a book,” Hayes said. “Just having a place to go, find that resource, get online and have some help if they need it to accomplish a lot of things that right now is difficult for them to do.” 

Our staff at LWB US couldn’t agree more. So far, the community seems to have really embraced the WALI concept. The overwhelmingly positive feedback has us thinking of how to make the program grow.

“We’re hoping to ride that high and continue to uplift and be bold and expand our work — see what other sides of town we can go to, what other additions to the space to make it comfortable, to make it fun,” said Azure Grimes, LWB US’s Senior Program Manager. “So that was really promising to know that there were a lot of opportunities and excitement for people to participate in this program again. It was really affirming.” 

Lisa Alvarenga, LWB US’s San Antonio Project Coordinator, also feels the success of the WALI program bodes well for future opportunities as the community continues to rally amid the ongoing pandemic.

“I definitely feel like the community, our constituents, are itching to get involved with people again … I am especially excited to have other partners join us in the future and just seeing what the effects of in person programming are going to be this time around,” Alvarenga said.

Learn more how the San Antonio Area Foundation supports nonprofits and the impact of the COVID-19 Response Fund during the pandemic.

Cassie Korcel is a Communications and Engagement Intern at LWB US. For more information on the organization and its WALI program, contact LWB US San Antonio Project Coordinator Lisa Alvarenga at lisa@librarieswithoutborders.us and/or visit https://www.librarieswithoutborders.us/wash/.