In 2014, two 20-year-olds had the idea to put two washers and dryers in the back of a van to help those doing it tough with free laundry. Now, seven years on, they provide mobile laundry and shower services all around Australia – and, most importantly, a place to connect and have a chat.
We spoke to Orange Sky Co-Founders Nicholas Marchesi and Lucas Patchett on how their charity has grown.
When did you first get the idea for Orange Sky?
Lucas: Nic and I volunteered together at our high school’s food van which visited local parks around Brisbane offering free food to people who had unfortunately found themselves experiencing homelessness. Both myself and Nic really enjoyed our volunteering experience with the food van and wanted to do something more to support our local community.
A few years after we graduated from school, Nic and I hatched the idea to throw two washing machines and two dryers in the back of an old van with a plan to visit parks around Brisbane to offer free laundry services to those in need.
Can you tell us a bit about how the Orange Sky vans operate? How has your fleet and reach changed over the years?
Nic: Seven years on we now operate 38 services across Australia and New Zealand, have washed over 2 million kilograms of laundry and have engaged in more than 369,000 hours of genuine, non-judgemental conversation with our friends doing it tough.
Our fleet has certainly upgraded from our original van, Sudsy. We now operate shower vans, hybrid vans which feature two washing machines, two dryers and a shower and laundry pods. The laundry pods are portable fixtures with two washing machines and two dryers.
You’ve mentioned that one of the most crucial things for those experiencing homelessness is just the chance to have a non-judgemental chat and connect with people. Why do you think this is?
Lucas: When we first started, our mission was to improve hygiene access for people experiencing homelessness, however, our service grew into much more. From the conversations and connections we have built with our friends, we know isolation and not feeling like you belong is a major factor negatively impacting people experiencing homelessness. There is no doubt that clean clothes and a warm shower make a positive difference, but we believe our biggest impact in the community is through the hours of conversation and genuine connection that take place on our iconic, six orange chairs.
Nic: Conversations are what Orange Sky do best. Our volunteers are not counsellors or experts on homelessness, they are empathic listeners and great conversationalists. Orange Sky isn’t about solving the issue of homelessness or “saving people”. The service is about creating a safe, positive and supportive environment for people who are too often ignored, or who feel disconnected from their community. That even comes down to the way we address people that use our service. We don’t use ‘customers’ or ‘patrons’, they’re friends; just like you and I.
How did Covid affect your operations?
Lucas: COVID-19 has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone, and our thoughts go out to our friends and everyone in the community who continues to do it tough. Orange Sky was forced to pause services for a short period and that was the most difficult decision we have had to make. We got through those initial challenges through the sheer determination of our community, and we are now operating more shifts than ever before.
While the pandemic challenged us operationally, it was most difficult knowing the impact on our friends, volunteers and supporters. This time has reminded us about the importance of keeping our community safe and connected.
What is something you didn’t expect in the beginning about starting a charity?
Nic: I think the support and generosity of our community has surprised us the most. From our initial laundry partner believing in our crazy idea to our donors and service partners that allow us to be out on shift, our 2,000 volunteers that deliver our mission and our friends who trust us with their precious belongings.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Lucas: Ever since we started there have been challenges to overcome. From developing a functional laundry van, to exploring and launching our services in new areas, growing our team and growing our fleet – each step has had its difficulties.
In the beginning, the growth of Orange Sky happened very quickly and we have had to learn from many mistakes and understand the importance of building a high performing team around us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most challenging period of our history. The uncertainty of our operations and isolation affecting our communities has been difficult to overcome. These difficulties have provided even more reasons to keep our vans on the road and help the many more people that may be doing it tough as we move on.
When was the moment you realised you were making a big difference in people’s lives?
Lucas: From the first wash, the impact felt really profound for us and it has grown ever since. I still vividly remember the first friend we ever washed clothes for – his name was Jordan. Jordan was blown away by the van and our idea. He told us he had a couple of t-shirts in his bag, so we were like, “Yep, let’s give it a crack.”
We threw the shirts in and pressed the button, and then you’ve got 27 minutes of doing absolutely nothing while the clothes are washing. We sat down and had a chat with Jordan and found out some awesome stuff about him.
It turns out he went to school just up the road from me. He’d finished his engineering degree and worked as an engineer for five or six years. I was actually currently undertaking my engineering degree at the same University that Jordan went to. It really opened my eyes up to the fact that it only takes one or two little things to go wrong and you can find yourself doing it tough.
I also realised that washing takes time, and provides an awesome opportunity to have a chat with someone who is feeling isolated. It was during our first wash with Jordan that I realised that our crazy idea was so much more than just washing and drying clothes, it was about the connection and friendship we could offer those doing it tough.
The environmental impact of Orange Sky is also important to you. Can you tell us about your new solar-powered Waru Dryer and how it came about?
Nic: As we grow our services, we do this with an emphasis on caring for Country – embarking on more sustainable ways to operate across Australia. ‘Waru’ is arguably the first innovation used by humankind. Meaning ‘fire’ in Pitjantjatjara, the use of waru as a source of life has inspired a new method of Orange Sky operations.
Previously Orange Sky’s fleet was powered by diesel generators that were economically and environmentally costly. The Waru Dryer is the world’s first clothes dryer powered by fuel and solar battery-operated. The Waru Dryers have reduced our electrical consumption by up to 90% per shift, without sacrificing drying time or quality.
The Waru Dryers are kinder to our planet and visibly powerful, wrapped in the incredible artwork of Rhoda Tjitayi, Pitjantjatjara woman, South Australia. We acknowledge that innovation is not new to these lands, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples innovating for over 65,000 years.
Orange Sky has been helping out in the Northern Rivers after the major flooding disaster. Did you ever expect to be helping out during natural disasters?
Lucas: Community recovery is an important part of the Orange Sky service. We are committed to always rolling up our sleeves and supporting the community during devastating events where we can.
We previously supported communities during the 2019 bushfires and Tropical Cyclone Marcia in 2015. Our support in the Northern Rivers and South East Queensland during the most recent floods has certainly been our biggest community recovery response to date. In the month of March alone we operated over 277 flood recovery shifts, completing more than 4,421 loads of washing.
Nic: When the floods hit we knew we needed to do what we could to support impacted communities. On February 28th 2022 we deployed all available laundry vans and volunteer teams across Northern NSW and South East Queensland to offer flood affected communities free laundry services.
It was really devastating to see the extent of destruction the floods left behind. So many people lost everything. They lost their homes, their treasured items, some just getting out with the clothes on their backs.
It was incredible to see these communities rally together to support one-and-other. We all feel really lucky to be able to connect with these communities and to help by taking one thing off their list.
What’s the next big move for Orange Sky?
Nic: Since building Sudsy, our first van, innovation has been at the core of Orange Sky’s DNA. Our next goal is to triple our impact and help 40,000 people doing it tough by 2025. To achieve this we are discovering new ways to improve and scale our services to help more people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience homelessness at higher rates than their non-Indigenous counterparts. We have focused on tripling our remote services in this past financial year, with more growth expected in the future.
From vehicle upgrades, inventing new asset types, improving our sustainability and introducing services to new areas, we are always working towards something! There is never a dull moment at Orange Sky!
Lucas: I think we still don’t know how big this can become. Every day, we find out about more people that could use our services and I think it’s important to look at how we keep sustainably helping people. We have a strong focus on our social impact in the community and continue to build strong processes lead by data to make decisions for the organisation.
How can people get involved with Orange Sky?
If people want to support us on our mission to positively connect communities through free laundry services, warm, safe showers and genuine, non-judgemental conversation, they can head to our website to enquire to volunteer or donate. Every little bit counts.