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Orange Sky lights up the stage at FIA Conference

6 June 2022 at 4:33 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Founded by two Brisbane boys fresh out of high school, Orange Sky is about more than just washing: it’s about the power of human connection.

Danielle Kutchel | 6 June 2022 at 4:33 pm


Orange Sky lights up the stage at FIA Conference
6 June 2022 at 4:33 pm

Founded by two Brisbane boys fresh out of high school, Orange Sky is about more than just washing: it’s about the power of human connection.

When Lucas Patchett and Laura Stokes from Orange Sky took to the stage at FIA Conference 2022 for the Syd Herron Oration, the anticipation in the Pyrmont Theatre in Sydney’s International Convention Centre was palpable.

Orange Sky is, after all, a legend in the not for profit space.

But while many in the audience knew of the orange vans that travel around the country to deliver free laundry and shower services to people experiencing homelessness, not everyone had heard the full story of the organisation’s growth and impact.

Orange Sky was born of conversations, Patchett explained: the first was a conversation he had when he was 15 and was volunteering with his school’s program to feed homeless people in Brisbane. At a park in Fortitude Valley, Patchett struck up a conversation with Harry, a homeless man.

“It really changed my life forever. Harry reminded me [of] my uncle or my dad. I remember as a 15 year old having all those stereotypes blown away,” Patchett recalled.

Together with his best mate Nic Marchesi, Patchett investigated the issue of homelessness and came up with a “crazy, crazy dream” to help improve the hygiene standards of people experiencing homelessness.

In 2014, they installed washing machines and dryers in the back of an old van and began driving around Brisbane testing out the idea. 

Despite some initial technological hiccups, the boys got the machines to work. But with the sigh of relief came “this moment of realisation”.

With the van working, the pair realised they didn’t have a plan to fill in the time it took to wash people’s clothes.

So they sat down and began chatting with Jordan, the man whose clothes were now spinning around in the first machine.

“That’s another one of those conversations that’s changed my life forever,” Patchett said. He learned how quickly Jordan had become disconnected from the community and become homeless.

From then on, Patchett and Marchesi kept coming back to the park with their van, Sudsy, and the machines. But the most important things they brought with them were six orange chairs.

“These chairs were responsible for offering hours and hours and hours of conversation between everyday Australians, every single day of the week. It started with that first conversation with Jordan,” Patchett told the audience.

Through this, the boys began to work out what Orange Sky was turning into: a service to connect people who had, for whatever reason, uncoupled from the community, as well as a mobile laundry provider. Both tenets remained equally important and in its first month of operation, the organisation washed and dried clothes for over 300 “homeless friends” for free.

Since then, Orange Sky has grown to a network of over 33 laundry and shower services that visit communities around Australia and New Zealand, delivered by almost 2,000 volunteers each week.

And it’s no longer just about driving to local parks – Orange Sky has been at the forefront of disaster response too, responding to more than 15 natural disasters like the Black Summer bushfires and this year’s floods in Queensland and New South Wales with their washing, drying and showering services. 

“We at Orange Sky see that this is going to be an increasing need, unfortunately, as a result of the current situation that we’re seeing from climate change,” Stokes explained.

Orange Sky also serves remote Aboriginal communities as part of an effort to support better health outcomes for First Nations people.

Through it all, Patchett told the FIA audience, it’s the stories of the people that the volunteers meet that keeps them going.

Central to Orange Sky’s purpose is that the conversations are genuine and non-judgemental. These are places for people experiencing homelessness and hardship to feel safe, comforted and supported.

“Orange Sky’s mission very quickly evolved from wanting to improve hygiene standards for the homeless to positively connecting communities,” Patchett said.

“Orange Sky’s washed and dried over two million kilos of free laundry, facilitated more than 24,000 safe, hot showers. But most importantly, and most simply, Orange Sky has facilitated over 300,000 hours of genuine and non-judgemental conversation, on those six orange chairs.”

The organisation has also found enough friends who believe in their mission to keep them going, and Stokes paid tribute to the skill of the marketing and fundraising team behind Orange Sky for helping to fuel the organisation’s mission.

“To be able to go from nothing to where we are today, over eight years, for me is something I feel really proud of. And I’m impressed to be able to stand up here today and see the 10 per cent year-on-year growth that we’ve had,” she said.

“For us, it’s been about leaning into that value proposition and really surrounding ourselves with our corporate partners, and particularly those philanthropists who’ve gone on that journey with us and been able to give things a crack with us.

“The future looks like growing the sophistication of individual giving, regular giving and bequests, and taking it to the next level so that we can continue to drive impact for our friends and for our volunteers.”

With conversations on everyone’s minds as the next session approached, Patchett asked audiences to reflect on the power of words.

“What I hope we take into the craziness of the rest of the conference over the next couple of days is that you can all remind yourselves you don’t need a bright orange washing machine; you don’t need thousands and thousands of hours and millions and millions of dollars. Each and every one of us can deliver hope. Each and every one of us can care,” he said. 

“We just need to remind ourselves about the power of an awesome conversation.”

Find out more about Orange Sky here.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting.

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