Changing the world with a washer and dryer

Yes, we have a lot of problems in our nation, many of them in the inner cities.

Open any newspaper, or watch a TV newscast, and you’ll see the almost-daily parade of arrests and mug shots, causing elected officials to say, “We’ve got to do something about our crime problem.”

It may not seem like it at times, but many people are doing something.

Joe Smith with Roger Hilley and Joseph Francisco

Joe Smith of Chattanooga is one of those people. He isn’t perfect. He is the first to admit, he has a checkered past. A lifetime ago, he did some drugs, and got into trouble. He considered himself a failure, and planned to commit suicide. He ran out of gas before he reached his suicidal destination. “I even failed at that,” he said. A friend saw him on the side of the road, and talked him out of giving up.

From that moment on, he has lived a life of service. He used his athletic skills to encourage at-risk youths to put on boxing gloves, to channel their mischievous energies into something constructive. He founded the West Side Boxing Club, which morphed into Chattanooga’s YCAP (Youth Community Action Project). For more than twenty years, Smith, his family and friends, have shepherded the kids nobody believed in. He can’t boast of a 100% success rate, but the streets are indeed safer because Smith took the time to care.

Early in his new career, Smith saw a pressing need beyond the daylight to dark services he could provide at the gym. He and his wife Paula took one of the troubled kids into their own home as a foster child. That was in 1991, and the young man would be the first of nineteen children taken in by the Smiths and their own two kids. Most were male teens, with no father figure of their own.

In the meantime, Smith expanded his YCAP program to go far beyond boxing. Academic help was provided, and Smith began regular visits to schools to let the kids know he was keeping an eye on them, as well as being an advocate for them. (He has since become a Hamilton County school board member), He has introduced a woodworking program, giving the teens a chance to earn some pride, as well as a few bucks, by making something with their hands.

Certainly, Smith uses his personal testimony to inspire his YCAP attendees, but when I asked him about his most effective tool, his answer surprised me. “A washer and dryer,” he replied. That raised my eyebrows, so he continued.

“There was a 12 year-old boy,” he said. For the sake of conversation, we will call him JT. “He came to YCAP every day,” Joe said, “and we noticed a problem. The other kids were making fun of him, calling him names, and we don’t allow that. I decided to get to the bottom of it. He had bad body odor. It was time to have a serious talk with him.”
“I told him, JT, you’re twelve years old. You don’t realize it, but you’re becoming a man. You have to start taking a bath every day. You’ve got to use soap, and you’ve got to use deodorant, every single day. I bought him some, just to be sure.”

Smith said JT seemed to understand this straight talk, but the problem continued.

Smith said, “We were driving him around one day, and we realized that odor was embedded in his clothes. There was no amount of bathing that could conquer the smell of his clothes.”

Smith’s wife went to the store and got JT some new clothes. But within a few days, it was evident that there was a deeper problem.

“It was the middle of February,” Smith said, “and I took him home. It was cold outside. First thing I noticed was a water hose from the house next door, going through his bathroom window. The only water they had was cold water from the next house, because their water had been shut off. They couldn’t pay the bill. So that garden hose water, ice cold, was all they had to clean with. And they sure couldn’t afford a Laundromat.”

That’s when Smith had an idea that would change some lives. “I’ve made a lot of friends over the years,” he said, “and I’ve never been afraid to ask for help. So I found us a washer and dryer for the YCAP building, and it’s the best ministry tool I’ve ever had.”

So, I asked, what are the magical healing powers of a washer and dryer? “Here’s what I found out,” he said. “We started providing free washing and drying for our families, and you know what? Mama, or Auntie, or Grandma, or whoever ran the household brought their wash in, and they were my captive audience for two hours, or however long it took to do their wash. It was like a counseling session. We had some good, long talks. I’d ask them why they were doing drugs, or getting drunk, and making them understand that their kids were just going to grow up doing the same thing, because it’s the only behavior they knew. This was time I had never had with them before. For some of them, I was the first person who showed any interest in their family, and their future. I think it helped a bunch of them, but if it just helped one of them, it was well worth it.”

He concluded, “I know we saved ‘em about ten dollars worth of quarters, but we might have saved some lives too. And it was all because of that washer and dryer.”

Joe Smith has learned the real key in making a difference isn’t about money, or out-of-town consultants, or the latest trendy programs. It is about building relationships. “People want to help, they really do,” he said. “but they don’t know how. Just tell ‘em to call me.”

For more information on YCAP, click HERE, or call 423-847-7682

Below are photos of Joe Smith and fellow School Board member Joe Wingate delivering a washer and dryer to the Brainerd High football program.  Joe Smith had heard that the coach did not have access to a washer and dryer (for practice uniforms, etc), and used his contacts to get them donated.

About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

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