MELBOURNE, Fla. - Early Tuesday morning, when the sun had barely broken the horizon, Ann King-Smith pulled into the parking lot of the Flamingo Laundry Center in Melbourne. You might call her a regular.
"We got a full house," King-Smith announced over the sound of washers and dryers working hard. "I think we're set up pretty good."
She was greeted with hugs and an offer of doughnuts and sausage gravy and biscuits. The business was unusually packed with people that morning. Everyone knew her. They were there because of her.
King-Smith is founder of Project Suds America, a nonprofit with a mission to help homeless and low-income veterans with laundry services.
Tuesday morning was routine she's repeated every week for the last five years.
"People are always happy here. It's never quiet," King-Smith said. "We worry when it's quiet because when it's quiet we know they've got problems."
King-Smith is used to dealing with problems.
"I'm a phone call away, and believe me, my phone rings a lot," she said, adding that she wouldn't have it any other way.
"My father was a Korean vet, and so I honor his service by helping these guys. We're all one family."
She works with about 20 veterans living in the area who are either living in the woods or have housing assistance but little else.
"People think about food, shelter and clothes, in that order," she continued. "But they don't think about keeping those clothes clean."
King-Smith started the nonprofit after helping with a winter clothing drive. "I woke up about 2 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. I thought 'OK, what happens when all these coats get dirty? Do they throw them all away and we do this again and again?'"
The next morning she went to the local American Legion Post 163 and started collecting quarters and detergent. "It's been a success story ever since," she said smiling.
Willis Lindsey would agree. Lindsey is N navy veteran who has relied on Project Suds America to help supplement his disability income. "I'd be homeless or worse without them," he said. "I tried to do laundry in the bathtub but that didn't work out."
Lindsey says he went months without clean laundry before finding Project Suds America. "This keeps our head above water. Keeps us moving," Lindsey said.
Today, a handfull of men and women will catch up while their clothes spin in large machines designed to handle a week or more's worth of laundry. Many say they look forward to the gathering.
Marine veteran Joe Radford was there with two weeks' worth of clothes. "It's the camaraderie," he says. "You get to see other veterans and realize that you're not alone."
Before the morning is over, King-Smith will gather funds to help one veteran pay his electric bill and give a ride to a couple of other men heading back to their camp in the woods.
"We'll be here as long as we have the support of the community," she said. "As long as we have veterans with dirty clothes and they can't afford to take care of that themselves, we'll be here."
Project Suds America depends on donations and volunteers to provide its services. If you would like to help, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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