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Middle school student Mehr Grewal is no stranger to community service projects — or to the importance of handwashing. During a flu outbreak, she created an interactive “Clean Hands Save Lives” presentation and took it to K-12 schools to help educate kids about hand hygiene and health.

So, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Grewal knew she wanted to help make a difference for people who couldn’t easily access sinks to wash their hands in. She started building mobile handwashing units.

Separately, UW associate professors of architecture Elizabeth Golden and Rick Mohler were working with Real Change, a weekly newspaper organization that provides employment opportunities to people without stable housing, to create sinks to install on Seattle streets so people without housing could have a reliable place to clean their hands.

Happenstance made Grewal, Golden and Mohler aware of each other’s work, and now they have teamed up to form the Clean Hands Collective. Other members are Anita Chopra, MD, an internal medicine specialist at UW Medicine (and Grewal’s mom); Brice Maryman, a Seattle-area landscape architect; Jeff Hou, PhD, a UW professor of landscape architecture; and Tiffani McCoy, lead organizer for Real Change.

The team continues to install both mobile and permanent handwashing units throughout the greater Seattle area. Currently there are 13 mobile units and six street sinks installed.

“Both handwashing units serve different groups and places and people. Sometimes you need to have something that’s quick and mobile, and sometimes you need to have something that’s always out there and more community-based,” Golden says.

Hands in: The value of teamwork

The team members recognize that their collaboration — across disciplines, professional fields and personal experiences — is what strengthens their projects.

“I am so proud of our UW family, backed by Real Change, and how we highlight that people from diverse fields all joined hands together and learn so much from each other,” Chopra says.

Teamwork has helped Grewal and the UW architecture/landscape architecture team improve their individual projects. One example? Measuring the impact of the units.

“I wanted to measure how many people were using the handwashing stations. I learned that the mobile units had 50 to 60 handwashes a day,” Grewal explains.

Golden, inspired by this idea, worked with Mohler to establish a way of measuring use at the street sinks. They decided to monitor soap use, figuring out that, on average, a person washing their hands uses 2.5 pumps of soap.

Teamwork has also helped solve problems — like where the dirty water from the street sinks goes after someone washes their hands.

“One concern was around the public health implications of graywater or blackwater going into the street and becoming another vector for pathogens,” says Maryman. “So we attached a trough and planted a rain garden, which allows the soil to help filter some pathogens prior to the water discharging.”

The rain garden also weighs the sink down and prevents it from being stolen, Mohler says. Plus, the plants provide something pretty to look at.

“If you don’t wash your hands for yourself, wash them for the plants,” Mohler jokes.

Hand-in-hand with the community

For Mohler, a standout moment so far has been learning that people are using the street sinks not just to wash their hands, but also to wash their clothes and dishes. He remembers one time he had to make repairs to a sink that had been vandalized, and people who used it told him how they relied on it.

The team has heard positive feedback from many of the organizations sponsoring the mobile units and sinks.

“Overall people are taking responsibility for the stations and taking good care of them, and members in community are appreciating them. That’s something I’m really proud of,” Grewal says.

Though the team continues to install mobile units and sinks, their ultimate goal is to share their knowledge so members of the community can build their own handwashing stations.

That’s why they constructed both the mobile units and street sinks from easily available materials people can purchase at local hardware stores — and why they made the assembly instructions for both units available on their website.

Their goal is already becoming reality. Grewal was contacted by someone who installed a mobile unit at a school in Gig Harbor. Golden and Mohler worked with a school nurse who built a street sink for a school in the Methow Valley.

According to Mohler, for each new mobile unit or sink to be a success, a community member ideally needs to adopt the unit and watch over it, refilling soap and making sure no one messes with it.

“Our vision for the future is to spread the message that this is for the community, by the community, and make it open to anyone. I think the mobile units and sinks will be helpful in spreading the word about hand hygiene and encouraging hand hygiene in the community,” Grewal says.