Aussie's 'fun idea' inspires a movement

Story highlights

  • Since 2014, Orange Sky Laundry has provided more than 300,000 pounds of clean laundry across Australia
  • Co-founder Nicholas Marchesi hopes to bring the nonprofit to the U.S. next year
  • Nominate a CNN Hero here

Brisbane, Australia (CNN)Many new college graduates are chasing high-paying jobs or launching corporate careers.

Nicholas Marchesi is not one of them.
    Inspired by his college volunteer work with the homeless, the 21-year-old says he "had this crazy idea."
    'We're able to restore respect,' says Orange Sky Laundry co-founder Nicholas Marchesi.
    "Hey, let's chuck two washing machines and two dryers in the back of an old van and drive it around and wash and dry clothes for free," Marchesi recalled.
    This initial vision grew into Marchesi's nonprofit, Orange Sky Laundry -- a free laundromat-on-wheels for Australia's low income and homeless population.
    Marchesi is motivated by his belief that clean clothing is a basic human right everyone deserves -- but not everyone can access.
    "Hygiene is very significant," he said. "Going for job interviews or just trying to have a chat, you can't really do that with dirty clothes."
    Beyond washing and drying services, the organization teams up with other agencies that offer free showers, hot meals and medical care. It also has more than 620 volunteers, who have become a support system for those often stigmatized by the broader community.
    "We're not trying to treat anything. We're trying to be really empathetic listeners," Marchesi said.
    Since 2014, his nonprofit has provided more than 300,000 pounds of clean laundry to Aussies "sleeping rough" in 12 cities across the continent.
    The group plans to expand to the United States next year.
    CNN's Marissa Calhoun spoke with Marchesi about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: What inspired you to start your mobile laundry service?
    Nicholas Marchesi: It started out as a fun idea by my best mate, Lucas (Patchett), and me -- to do something to make a difference in our community one weekend. We quickly realized that we'd stumbled upon something that was totally a scalable idea.
    Lucas and I, we're really passionate about finding ways to give back. Today, we're a massive operation that is growing fast, and it's really having a significant impact on communities. We're so blessed with people from all around the world who are supporting us.
    CNN: People who experience homelessness face many challenges. Why did you choose this focus?
    Marchesi: I took for granted having fresh, clean clothes -- but when you think about it, this is a very important issue. Constantly being damp, constantly being dirty, that can have a massive impact on someone's life.
    Not only can we eliminate diseases that can be transferred through dirt or soiled clothing, but we're able to restore respect. We even found a way through our service to employ some of our homeless friends.
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    Orange Sky Laundry isn't the cure to cancer. It is not a multi-million dollar operation. But (it) is a really simple way to treat others the way they deserve to be treated. I couldn't think of anything better to be doing in my life right now than finding a way to help people improve their lives. It's something that gives me fuel each day.
    CNN: What happens during a wash?
    Marchesi: Clean clothes and conversation is really at the heart of what Orange Sky Laundry does. When the washing's in the machine, there's absolutely nothing to do except sit down and have a chat.
    The most important thing our vans carry are six orange chairs. Those chairs help our volunteers foster positive and genuine discussion. And each and every minute that those chairs are in use, our service is improving the lives of our homeless friends.
    CNN: Who designed the Orange Sky Laundry vans?
    Marchesi: Every van we build ourselves, and that means we know it inside and out. They take us two to three days to build. In each van, we've got two washing machines, two dryers, two water tanks and a generator onboard. We can wash and dry clothes anywhere. After the vans are built, we trial them, and eventually they are sent to a service area to be put to use.
    We're incredibly curious people, so we try to be creative as we develop newer models -- and through that creativity and innovation, we've found new ways to do things. We've made it easier for our volunteers to operate the vans. We've made it safer for them to operate, but also we've made it more fun.
    We hope to one day have Orange Sky Laundry vans operating all around the world that are having the same impact.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Orange Sky Laundry website and see how to help.
    To donate to ORANGE SKY LAUNDRY, click the CrowdRise widget below.
    Donations are accepted via Fleece and Thank You, a U.S. 501(c)(3) nonprofit.