The table was piled high with unwrapped bars of white Ivory soap, ready for a half-dozen teenaged boys to take their stations at cheese graters and get to work. An age group you might expect to be out doing something else for spring break included the youth of Raintree Community Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, who traveled south looking for ways to volunteer. The boys turned the bars into soap flakes and readied them for the next table of workers.
The teenaged girls were learning to carefully measure other ingredients to mix with the soap flakes, creating bags of laundry detergent. “It’s the biblical thing you should do,” explained Youth Leader Michaela Collins, “being the hands and feet. This seems like a tangible way you could meet people’s needs.” Some teens and another adult from their church were looking up Bible verses to print on the outside of the bags.
Volunteer Maggie Steele has been instructing and inspiring groups like these as they’ve prepared enough low-cost laundry soap to wash more than 35,000 loads of laundry for victims of the catastrophic Joplin, Missouri tornado. In addition to taking 160 lives, the tornado destroyed around 2,000 structures, leaving many today without permanent homes. Maggie and her husband, Phil, both retired, started creating the homemade product last year from a surplus of donated soap. “That’s really what started us, we had so much soap that when I realized that for a very little amount we could do this, said Steele.”
The ministry is located inside the Distribution Center located behind College Heights Christian Church in Joplin. As the one-year anniversary of the deadly storm approaches, the center still helps an estimated 300-400 families with the laundry soap, food and other household items each month. The center initially had donations of commercially prepared detergent. But, when those were gone and it had to use cash donations to purchase the product, it cost at least five times as much as the homemade version. Plus, Steele says her homemade mixture takes up less space in the temporary FEMA trailers where hundreds of families still live.
The volunteers have most recently been using a small, donated 3.1 ounce bar of the soap that’s grated and mixed by either hand or a food processor with a heaping half-cup of Borax and a heaping half-cup of washing soda. Steele also tried substituting baking soda for at least half of the washing soda, and it seems to work. This makes a half-batch for 18 loads of laundry.
The Steeles are members of Christ Church of Oronogo, which supports their sister church that runs the Distribution Center. In the time since the tragedy, thousands of volunteers have been helping in various ways, with the lay community and faith-based groups working together. Steele says, “Our feeling was the church is doing what the church is supposed to do, we’re being Jesus’ hands and feet. When we made a commitment to it, we had no idea how long it would take.”