THE PROJECT began two years ago and it is flourishing today: Lavanderia Industrial 21, or Industrial Laundry 21—a high-tech commercial laundry company operated by dozens of youngsters with Down syndrome. Based in the city of Concepción, the unique project—the first of its kind in Latin America—is an initiative of Archbishop Fernando Chomali of Concepción, the country’s second-largest diocese, located in central Chile.
The archbishop took his cue from a similar project in Chicago. To-date, Lavanderia Industrial 21 has transformed dozens of lives, giving young people who had limited or no prospects of employment with the opportunity to become active participants in the workforce. Hotels, hospitals and restaurants are extremely pleased with the work done with the help of top-notch, state-of-the-art equipment.
For the Church in Chile, Lavanderia Industrial 21 is a demonstration of the ennobling dimension of work, the dignity of labor, which goes to the heart of Catholic social teaching. Plus, this particular job creation project in the service industry, developed in collaboration with the local Catholic university, is a rare instance of the Church taking the initiative in actually creating a company for underserved, often isolated members of society. Lavanderia Industrial 21 has created a template that can readily be put to use elsewhere in Chile and across the continent.
For these newly minted workers—whose ranks also include youngsters with severe autism—the program is an enormous gift. The work environment creates a powerful sense of belonging, plus the mechanics and logistics of the work puts them in regular touch with people from various sectors of society who otherwise might not give individuals with Down syndrome much thought, let alone interact with them as productive workers delivering an essential service for local businesses.
The process is simple: a truck delivers the towels, table cloths and other items to be washed; the workers sort the laundry according to color and delicacy, put detergent in enormous industrial-sized washing machines, and start the cycle. Afterward, there is precision ironing and folding, plus packing up the freshly laundered items for delivery to the customer.
With the service industry growing by leaps and bounds across the continent—and across the world—as long-established industries are transformed or go into decline, there are bound to be many opportunities for the kinds of basic work that Archbishop Chomali has created access to for these young, highly disadvantaged workers.
Lavanderia Industrial 21 delivers quality service and has become a self-sustaining operation that generates viable revenues that allow for the overall running of the business, salaries or stipends, and investment in equipment. Impossible to express in dollars and cents, however, is the human capital that is created, boosted, and celebrated.
Youngsters with Down syndrome who are denied opportunities to participate in society suffer greatly. Love of people and enthusiasm for life are their particular gifts, which long for outlets. Having a regular workplace, mingling with colleagues, and feeling productive have a transformative effect on these youngsters’ lives. One of the workers, Jesus Hermosilla, put it quite simply: “I am happy to be able to grow and to help my family—and not feel like I am a burden at home.” For most, it is sheer joy to have a reason to leave their home every day—with a purpose! The evident joy of their fellowship is infectious.
Archbishop Chomali described the business as an opportunity “for young people with disabilities to work and to develop their strengths.” “Nothing is impossible,” the prelate added: “these youngsters can work or continue their studies because they deserve that their dreams come true.”
There are also opportunities beyond the laundry business, which serves as a springboard. Last summer, the Archbishop promoted two youngsters—Patricio Cartes and María Soledad—who had spent two years at Lavanderia Industrial 21, to join the administrative staff of the Archdiocese and draw a salary. Their job includes escorting visitors to the archdiocesan offices, delivering correspondence to various offices, and serving as support staff for the accounting department in particular. Patricio said he met his best friends at Lavanderia Industrial 21, where he “loved washing and ironing” best.
Pamela Cánovas, who is in charge of Lavanderia Industrial 21, said that the two youngsters “had amply demonstrated that they are able to work for the archdiocese.” She added, “we hope that in the future more young people with Down syndrome can be invited into the workplace, not only in the Church, but also in private companies and in public services.”
The inclusion of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the flow of work and society is not just a “nice idea,” said Archbishop Chomali; Lavanderia Industrial 21 “has demonstrated that it can be done; these youngsters have demonstrated that they can take responsibility as workers and integrate into a workplace, with all that that entails, like sticking to a schedule, and earning their pay.”
In the Archdiocese of Concepción, Chile, the Church is breaking some truly new ground—helping young people with Down syndrome find personal and professional satisfaction in ways that not long ago seemed unthinkable.