Iris Washington is a fixture behind the cash register at JJ’s Place in the basement of John Jay Hall. Past the stairs on weekend nights, there’s usually a student or two standing by Washington’s desk, talking to her about their day as she swipes people into the dining hall. Over the past 27 years, Washington has become a much-loved figure at the basement dining location. She is quick to mention that the feeling is mutual.
“I love these kids,” she says. “They could be my own kids, sometimes.”
In the past two months, these relationships have been manifested in support for Washington as she faces a series of personal misfortunes, culminating in heavy rain flooding her family home in Pineville, South Carolina, this past October.
Washington grew up in Pineville, where her 35-year old disabled daughter, Teneshia, now deals with a heart condition. Washington decided to open a GoFundMe crowdfunding page to help cover the overwhelming expenses. Many Columbia students who have built relationships with Washington have eagerly promoted the page on their social media accounts. Since it went live on Oct. 10, the page has brought in more than $7,500 in donations.
Washington moved to New York from Pineville, a town with a population of 1,856, in the early 1980s. Later, a friend working as a truck driver told her that Columbia was looking for a dining cashier. She started working for Columbia in 1988 and has been working the night shift at JJ’s Place ever since. She is currently behind the counter on the weekends, from Thursday to Sunday, and she is demonstrably content there.
“This was my starting place, and I guess it’ll be my ending place,” Washington says. “I’ll stay here until I retire.”
However, her family back in Pineville hasn’t been doing as well. In 2013, Washington’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Washington took a leave of absence for two years to take care of her at the family home in South Carolina, and in doing so exhausted most of her savings. Her mother passed away, leaving behind an outstanding mortgage, and Teneshia moved into the home as her heart condition worsened.
“So it went from my mom passing away to my daughter having her heart problem. And it just was one thing after the other. The mortgage on the home, all the medical bills.”
Teneshia underwent heart surgery, but complications prevented surgeons from attaching one side of her pacemaker. Washington’s voice catches as she describes her daughter’s condition.
“Me and my daughter have a very, very close relationship,” she says. “We kind of depend on each other for everything. It hurts me now.”
Washington’s problems worsened when heavy flooding gripped South Carolina last month, leaving 30,000 people without power. She posted photographs of the water damage sustained by the modest home on her GoFundMe page. A photograph of the front of the house shows a twisted stair railing missing several posts.
“Teneshia called me and told me there was a lot of rain,” Washington says. “Oh, so much rain.”
Washington didn’t like the idea of opening a crowdfunding campaign at first, reluctant to ask strangers for money. But she changed her mind after one Sunday church service. Washington attends church services each Sunday at the Second Canaan Baptist Church on 111th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, and she attributes much of her current perseverance to her faith.
“I came home on Sunday evening after church and I decided to just give it a shot,” she says. “If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, I have nothing to lose at this time, because I don’t have the money. That same Sunday, when I came in, I got some mail from the collection agency saying that they wanted to foreclose on the house.”
Washington’s mother passed away without leaving a will, causing the house to go into probate. Ownership of the house was split between Washington and her siblings, preventing them from modifying the mortgage their mother left behind or taking out a loan. Her bank sold it to a collection agency, which threatened her with foreclosure. The troubled house lacked insurance at the time of the flooding.
Washington speaks tenderly of her childhood home, always calling it “the house” or “the home.” She says that her first priority was always preventing foreclosure.
“I had to save the house,” Washington says. “I wanted to save the house because I was the first child, and I was born in the house. I didn’t want to ride by later and say, ‘Oh, that’s where I used to live.’”
The $7,500 from the GoFundMe campaign from 320 donors, rising every day, has made it possible for Washington to halt the flow of letters from the collection agency and stop the foreclosure of the house.
Washington attributes much of the campaign’s success to her close relationships with three Columbia College sophomores: Alexander Birkel, Gabe Gomez, and Ewoma Ogbaudu.
The three students run the “#HelpIris” Facebook page, which has 329 supporters and a link to Washington’s GoFundMe website. The header shows Washington standing in the stairwell of JJ’s Place, her laugh lines deepening as she looks away from the camera.
“Well, Alex was the first student I think I talked to about it,” Washington says. “And then Alex and Gabe were like, OK, they could share it with their friends. And then Ewoma came up with the idea of starting with the different pictures and stuff, so he came down and we took pictures and things like this. And they just got together, the three of them themselves. And they said, ‘We can do whatever it takes to help you get the money that you need.’”
The Facebook page’s description reads, “If you’ve ever been to JJ’s Place at Columbia, you have no doubt met the wonderful Iris (she’s the one that swipes you in).”
“It wasn’t really with her telling me to do so, but [Gomez and I] both kind of figured that this was something that we could really do that would really help her out very much,” Birkel says of bringing the campaign to the Columbia community. “So we started using our social media networks, we started going around campus, in person, door to door, just a lot of different strategies to help get the word out. And eventually I guess it really just took off.”
Washington recalls that her story resonated with a student who shares her adherence to prayer.
“I was telling my aunt today that this one student comes down pretty much at least two or three times a week,” she says. “And he’ll say, ‘Iris, can I pray for you?’ And he does, I’m telling you. Oh Lord, it just brings tears to my eyes. And he’ll come, we’ll stop doing everything, and he’ll just pray for me.”
Washington found herself surprised at the success of the GoFundMe campaign and the generosity of the entire Columbia community—even members that she has never met. She explains that her late hours prevent her from seeing many new faces, but much to her surprise, strangers from across Columbia still donate to her campaign.
“This taught me to know that when you’re in trouble, or in a time of need, everybody in the Columbia community comes together,” she says. “Because there’s a lot of people that sent messages with their donations that said ‘I don’t know you’ or ‘I didn’t ever get to meet you,’ but they’ll also say, ‘Hopefully this will help you.’ Oh my God, it’s so overwhelming.”
“I mean, just not only the donations make me happy, but also the people that come by, the hugs, the prayers, you know,” she adds. “All of it helps the drive to keep going. All of it helps.”
But Washington still has hurdles to cross. The GoFundMe campaign lists a $20,000 goal, because she is $13,000 in payments and $2,000 in lawyer fees away from settling the home’s mortgage. She also estimates that the flood waters left behind $10,000 in damages for family to deal with.
“There are still a lot of steps to be taken,” Birkel says.
Over fall break, Washington returned to South Carolina and sold home-cooked meals with her cousin to raise money.
“I like to say it’s going according to God’s plan,” she says. “It’s going.”