Connecting Australia One Load at a Time, With 2016 Young Australian of the Year

Today we have a VERY special guest. We are joined by Nic Marchesi, Co-Founder of Orange Sky Laundry, 2016 Young Australian of the Year (along with Lucas Patchett), everyday LEGEND and a great friend. He tells us about his amazing cause and how he is using innovation and creativity to change the world.

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How can I introduce someone as amazing as you? What do you consider yourself to 'be'?

I wouldn't really know my title! I'm the co-founder of Orange Sky Laundry, some people go down the track of calling me a social entrepreneur, but I don't know... I think that's a bit of nonsense haha.

For those that don't know, tell us a little bit about Orange Sky Laundry.

Orange Sky Laundry the first ever mobile laundromat service for the homeless, a crazy idea of Lucas Patchett and I to put two washing machines and two dryers in the back of an old van in October 2014 and drive it around, washing and drying homeless people's clothes for free. Since then we've sort of stumbled across a world first, connecting the community and reducing the transmission of really bad diseases, but most importantly, improving. the lives of others, 

In August 2016 we launched our first ever shower van, which is a van with two showers and two basins, and enough hot water for our homeless friends to have free hot showers for up to three hours.

So what made you want to start that? I know in high school you were already helping feed the homeless, is that what sparked you to want to do it on a bigger scale?

A little bit, but not entirely. Both Lucas and I went into Uni and working full-time, so we really missed the opportunity to help others, and really just missed the opportunity to hang out with our mates and give back to the homeless community. Our eyes were opened at an early age to a big problem out there. Tonight in Australia 105,000 people are homeless which means that 1 in 200 people don't have a safe place to call home. We simply wanted to do a little project in Brisbane to help our homeless friends and we never thought it would grow up to be what it is today.

 
 

"Tonight in Australia 105,000 people are homeless, meaning 1 in 200 people don't have a safe place to call home."

 
 

How do you even stumble across those figures? What made you want to look at this as an option?

I think a genuine curiosity around what the problem was and the more we looked into it, the more we saw that it wasn't just isolated to Brisbane, it's something that unfortunately is all around the world. But also we want to find tangible ways to impact the world and what most people will do in the morning is have a beverage and put fresh clean clothes on. We wanted to transition that onto the streets of Australia. Our mission when we first started was simply to improve the hygiene standards of the homeless, and we never thought that the mission statement would change which is now: To positively connect people who are homeless with the community. Laundry is purely a magnet to build up genuine trust and friendship. The biggest thing that our vans carry is not the washing machine or dryers, it's six chairs we put down to have a chat, and each and every second of those conversations make our homeless friend's lives better.

 
 

"The biggest thing that our vans carry is not the washing machine or dryers, it's six chairs we put down to have a chat"

 
 

And that's what's really interesting. It's not about the tangible clothes, it's about them feeling like a part of society, a part of the community.

Yeah and that's the really exciting thing is that the power of conversation is something that actually doesn’t cost any money. You don’t need lots of sandwiches or bright orange vans or millions dollars to make an impact on the community. It's the really simple things that we take for granted like having a chat, so that's where now our service makes the biggest impact. Orange Sky Laundry to date has fostered around 61,1000 hours of conversation and each and every week, our volunteers foster 1200 hours of awesome conversation. 

 
 

"You don't need millions of dollars to make an impact."

 
 

When you start a venture, whether it's a business or a charity, one of the first things you  have to do is to test it to see if it has legs. How did you test the concept originally?

Yeah so Lucas and I were really passionate about that rapid prototyping model, and coming up with not only an idea, but a concept and a delivery model that has been tried and tested in a really small way. We were lucky enough to manage to convince a company to give us some washing machines and dryers. They thought we were absolutely crazy and told us that the washing machines will never work in the back of a van, and nor would people ever use it. But we were passionate that we could make it work. So after a few trips back and forth from the local hardware store and a weekend or two, we had our first ever mobile laundry pilot in Brisbane. Our aim was to take it to as many parks, shopping centres and hostels around Brisbane and simply wash and dry clothes. We learnt a lot in that. The first thing we learned is that sometimes the washing machines could break (and we broke them a few times), but managed to find a way to get them working. We learnt that laundry takes time, it's not something you just leave on your bedroom floor where you come home and its magically washed and dried. It takes time. But also we learned that there is some really big tangible things that could happen through washing and drying someone's clothes. We're able to restore respect, raise heath standards standards and reduce the strain on community resources purely through a really simple thing like washing and drying clothes. 

At the start when people thought you were nuts or they thought it was too big of an issue to tackle,  were there times you thought about giving up? How did you overcome that situation?

I think with any project there's always going to be challenges, and challenge is a really good thing that inspires me. For all great challenges out there in the world, there is a really great problem to be solved and that was something that we faced very early on. One of our biggest challenges was that people told us that it would never work. These people were from machine manufacturers to laundry experts. So that was really daunting for us to think 'well maybe it isn't possible'. But, we sort of thought it was and I think that passion overran that fear of failure. But also that fear of failure is something that's a really good motivator for me in learning. We have had a lot of challenges in starting Orange Sky and all those challenges have been great learning opportunities for Lucas and I, and also awesome ways for communities to get involved. That's the really great thing about charities is that, the opportunities for competition isn't relevant because the impact we are trying to make is purely to improve people's lives. When we can calibrate to solve challenges, we can create greater impacts on the community. 

 
 

"When we can calibrate to solve challenges, we can create greater impacts on the community."

 
 

What was your biggest motivator?

The key driver for me was knowing the impact that our service could have, and seeing our service grow from one van to eleven vans around Australia. Going around the communities seeing the impact of a really simple thing that I took for granted like having fresh clean clothes is awesome. Seeing people that had only one, two or three things go wrong in their lives and have had some significant challenges, but have resulted in them finding themselves on the street is another massive motivator. We found a really simple way to help people that wasn't a cure for cancer or something that costs years and years to build and roll out, we found something that could be built with our own hands, with a little bit of money in Australia that could continue to scale and helps lots of people.

For sure. So would you say that the biggest contributor to your success was seeing that it was physically possible and that If you just put in enough work you could really make it happen?

 I think the biggest contributor to our success is that people can relate to being dirty. Most people find it difficult to relate to being homeless, they think its something that will never happen to them, or something that would be quite unfortunate. But most of us through life have experienced having dirty clothes, and that is something everyone can relate to. So, being able to share that appreciation for having clean clothes has been a really big driver for our success. The ability that no one out there has thought about it before has been a big help as well. Something so simple that I took for granted that could have a big impact. Also the tangibility of being able to be physically involved. Lucas and I have run Orange Sky Laundry and found a way that everyday Australians can connect with homeless communities. 

If you had to say one thing, like what is the part that you enjoy the most? 

There is no monetary value for Lucas and I to be with Orange Sky because we're full time volunteers, but the opportunity is priceless everyday to help people, to meet people from all walks of life whether they are homeless friends, amazing volunteers, organisations that have support us, or donors from 24 countries around the world. Every day Lucas and I get to be put in touch with some really remarkable people that are all made of the same stuff and all believe in the same thing, which is a really basic human right of clean clothes and conversation. But also being a part of being on the fore front of something that’s delivering that basic human right is a real privilege, and I think everyday to to inspire people to hand over their only possessions which might be in a backpack, into our possession and for volunteers all around Australia to give their time to want to genuinely help others is really remarkable and priceless opportunity to be a part of. 

So how many vans and volunteers do you currently have?

We have 10 vans in operation around Australia, we have vans Perth,  Adelaide,  Hobart, Melbourne, south east Victoria, Canberra, Sidney,  the Gold coast,  Brisbane and the Sunshine coast, we're just about to roll out another van to Wollongong and also that shower van like I mentioned before. Each and every week we have 622 incredible volunteers that run our service and all those volunteers wash and dry about 7.2 tons of free laundry. Orange Sky Laundry to date has fostered 210,000 kilos of free laundry and about 60,000 hours of awesome conversation. 

 
 

"Orange Sky Laundry to date has fostered 210,000 kilos of free laundry and 60,000 hours of awesome conversation."

 
 

That's amazing. You must be proud of yourself. Was there a point where it all took off? When it started to snowball and build momentum?  

I can't think of  an exact point of time but I can remember early on in the first couple of weeks of having our van with some really basic website and social media. I remember waking up one morning and seeing hundreds if not thousands of donations from the US and Germany and country's all around the world, thinking 'what happened last night?!'. We were actually trending on some of the biggest news sources around the world and saw donations from some really incredible countries. 12% of our donations in our first month of operating came from the US, with about 2000 unique donations that month. So I think that put us in a really interesting position, and  I guess that confidence that we were stumbling on something that hasn't been done before and could make an impact. Then I think our first launch outside of Queensland into Melbourne and making it work without knowing anyone was an awesome motivator that proved we had our model right, and that we would now quickly scale around Australia. 

We live in a noisy world. How did you initially get out there? Was it showing people that it was a real thing?

I don't know if it was one exact thing. I know that for us having a really clear defined product that was tangible and that people could buy into certainly helped. We said it was $6.00 to wash and dry someone's clothes, and $100,000 for one of these vans. People could really touch and feel that. Overlaid with some really incredible stories about the impact our service was having, and that Orange Sky isn't a Nic and Lucas show or how many washing machines we have, it's an opportunity to raise awareness for everyday people who just had a few things go wrong in their life and have found themselves living in the street. Simple things like laundry can have a big impact on their life's. So those two things combined was an opportunity for people to either share our story or to tangible buy in with a monetary donation. 

For anyone who doesn't fully understand the impact of homelessness in Australia, hit me with some stats.

Yeah so 1 in 200 Australians are homeless, 105,000 Australians don’t have a safe place to call home. Of that, 56% are male and 44% are female. We see homeless friends from all around Australia from all walks of life. We see people who have been company CEOs, people who were engineers and university graduates, we see parents, retirees and families who don’t have access to something like washing and drying clothes. That is the great thing about being on four wheels is that we can constantly review where we're going and what to improve to create greater impact. Our vans are going to be on the road 24 hours a day 7 days a week, so we are building assets that are responding to situations that are forever changing, and our hope that is one day people aren't homeless and our vans can be used to train and employ people that used to be on the street, but also if people suddenly become homeless and we see increasing homelessness percentages in a particular area, we can move our access to those areas to respond to those situations.

 
 

"Our hope that is one day people aren't homeless and our vans can be used to train and employ people that used to be on the street."

 
 

Would you say there's no dominant reason why people become homeless?

Yeah I would definitely say that and by no means am I an expert in homelessness at all. But what we see everyday is people from all walks of life, a few things have gone wrong and they've become disconnected with the community. That's what our key aim is now, to positively connect people who are homeless with the community, and we genuinely feel that people that are homeless are disconnected from that society. We see some recurring themes, but our mission is not to fix anything, our mission is to foster those positive and genuine conversations to connect the less fortunate. We aren't politically or religiously motivated, we're just a group of volunteers trying to connect our friends.

Tell me the plan for Orange Sky in 2017.

Our plan for the next 12 months is to keep growing our resources. We want to help as many homeless people all around Australia as we can, and we can do that by growing our mobile laundry van but also providing training and employment opportunities. We want to value add, whether that's through a really simple training program or a certificate course, or even hopefully a diploma one day that can be delivered while sitting down and having a chat on those orange chairs, as well as employment. We currently wash and dry clothes for the Brisbane Roar, the Ladies Cilento Hospital and 2 cafes in Brisbane. We're about to grow that across the country, and when we find ways to commercially engage in laundry contracts means our service can have an even greater value.

Are you hoping your amazing efforts here inspire movements around the world?

Absolutely, we're still the only people in the world providing mobile laundry and next year we're looking to roll out services into America, but our core mission is to purely inspire people that we can all have a greater impact in our community. If two everyday blokes from Brisbane can do it, we can all find ways to help people. We can all create change.

 
 

"If two everyday blokes from Brisbane can do it, we can all find ways to help people. We can all create change."

 
 

You inspire people all around the world. Who inspires YOU?

Multiple people: my parents, my mates and mentors, the stereotypical Richard Branson's and stuff like that to show that these things are achievable, but what inspires me most are the people out there every single day delivering hope and care to our vulnerable friends. Every day I am put in touch with incredible people who want to help us grow, and they help me get up in the morning.

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Wow. What a legend. I have an unlimited amount of respect for Nic and Lucas who put in such meaningful work to help the less fortunate every single day. If you'd like to make a donation (3 loads will only cost you $18!), you can do so by clicking here. Support this amazing movement!

MITCH HILLS
@mitchills


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