• An ex-defence truck equipped with three washers and dryers will provide free laundry services to the Lockhart River community. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A mobile laundry service is helping to fight skin diseases such as scabies in the remote community of Lockhart River, where washing facilities are in short supply.
Ella Archibald-Binge

20 Dec 2017 - 9:08 AM  UPDATED 20 Dec 2017 - 9:10 AM

There's a section at the Lockhart River tip known as the washing machine graveyard.

Dozens of old washing machines lie scattered about, gutted, broken down and beyond repair. Reliable appliances are hard to come by in the remote far north Queensland community, where whitegoods stores are few and far between. The washing machines that are available are usually expensive, and often break down quickly due to the harsh tropical climate, poor water quality and power spikes. 

As a consequence, many families in the 700-strong community struggle to maintain clean clothes and linen, which can lead to health complications like scabies. 

"We get mites that live in the blankets, sheets and pillows, couches and that," says Vikki Watkin, a worker at the Lockhart River Primary Healthcare Centre.

"It takes a lot of education to get people to know to wash all their sheets and pillow slips, linen, wipe all the couches down.

"When kids have got the scabies, it's one thing to come in and get treated, but it's just sort of applying a band aid. For prevention, we do need lots of education around prevention which is of course the washing of sheets and putting it out into the sun."

Now the community may have found a long-term solution, after teaming up with Orange Sky Australia, the world’s first mobile laundry service for homeless people, founded by Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett in Brisbane in 2014. 

The pair heard about the community's health challenges during a chance encounter with Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher at a conference a year ago. In consultation with community organisations, they developed a plan: to repurpose an ex-military truck into a heavy-duty mobile laundry equipped with three washers and dryers, and take it north to Lockhart River. An anonymous donor came on board to help that dream become a reality.

In November the truck, named Phytham after the totem representing the six clans in the community, rattled into Lockhart River unscathed after an epic 2500 kilometre drive. 

"Parking out the front and setting up the washing machines and [seeing] a small boy coming with a basket of washing and so excited to put them into the machine... that is something I will never forget," says Orange Sky co-founder Nic Marchesi.

Funded by public donations and corporate sponsors, the van now visits local organisations on a regular basis, including health care centres and the local school, which struggles with attendance rates. 

"One of the reasons why kids don't come to school is skin disease," explains Lockhart State School Principal Siobhan Jackson.

"Orange Sky is going to be a great way to address skin disease... and give kids the opportunity to come to school more often."

School staff also see the laundry service as a way to increase engagement with parents, who will be able to chat with teachers while waiting for the washing cycle to finish. 

"We're going to use that opportunity to go out and talk to parents about reading with your kids and nutrition and bed time and things like that," Ms Jackson says. 

Health workers also hope to capitalise on the opportunity to yarn and spread vital health messages. 

Empowering community to lead the project

The Orange Sky team is training locals to operate the mobile laundry, so the community can take ownership of the service. They also hope to replace existing household washing machines with more reliable, heavy-duty machines that can be maintained by trained locals rather than sent to the tip at the first sign of a mechanical issue. 

"This is a community-led project and we want the community to really own and take it to that next level. We can't take it to that next level from Brisbane," says co-founder Lucas Patchett. 

"Like any town around Australia, Lockhart has its fair share of issues. We're not naive suggesting that Phytham is going to fix all of these issues but what we want to see is over a gradual change over a number of months, over a number of years, people starting to really value washing, people starting to ownership on that truck and using it as a little social enterprise."

Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher hopes the van will have a "snowball effect". 

"You know how it feels when you've got clean clothes on your back in the morning, you've got a fresh start for the day," he says.

"No matter where you are, if you're walking around with dirty clothes, you always feel like you're carrying something like a baggage you know. When you have healthy clothes you have a healthier lifestyle." 

Orange Sky hope to roll out similar projects in remote communities across Australia. 

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