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Woman's Journal - Sunday, April 18, 2004
A Clean Cause:
Elaine's American Maid offers free housecleaning service for women fighting cancer
by Lorl Varosh
When Elaine Gordon Evans' mother-in-law was battling beast cancer, she couldn't muster the energy to clean her house.
So Evans, who owns Redmond-based Elaine's American Maid -- a housecleaning service -- arranged for help and witnessed the results: her mother-in-law achieved a better frame of mind to fight for health. Women get excited about a clean house," explains Evans, a stylish New York native who retains a soft Manhattan twang. ' ' A clean house can be a visual aid. It helps her feel on top of life."
Evans began providing housecleaning services for other women with cancer, for moms whose kids have cancer and for men whose wives have died of the disease. Among the latter Is Ernie Nicholson of Snohomish, who knew Evans because his nephew married her daughter. Evans first sent Katie McFarland to clean his house nearly a year ago, while his wife's breast cancer was still metastasizing into her bones and liver.
Vital community service
' Ruthie was sick for four years," Nicholson says. ' It was a long haul. All my time was taken up with her." The cleaning took the pressure off Nicholson and gave his wife a lift, he says. ' 'She was depressed at not being able to maintain the house, because she'd always been a good housekeeper. ' Whenever Katie came to clean, she always felt better. ... It lifted her spirits. 'It's such a good community service, so vital to a sick person." The service has continued since Ruthie died four months ago, while Nicholson has had to work six days a week as a furniture and flooring salesman to catch up with the medical bills.
Evans and her former husband of one year, hydroplane racer Mark Evans, are in the process of forming a foundation to expand the service to more people. With her housecleaners hit by the economic downturn, Evans has been assigning them to two or four people affected with cancer a week and paying the cost herself.
' ' I'm happy to find a new meaning in toilet cleaning," Evans says.
Elaine's success story
The daughter of a single mom who subsisted on welfare in the New York projects and died young, Evans took her first job at age 8 or 9 -- ironing shirts for a nickel apiece -- to help out. She remembers riding the bus to Park Avenue, spending collected pennies to buy a cup of tea and dreaming of a better life. " I knew I had to get there, not just by bus, but by hard work," she says.
She began cleaning houses at age 19 in south Florida. When exposure to Clorox fumes collapsed her lung, Evans found herself hospitalized with a tube in her chest, wondering how she would take care of her customers' houses. She called on single moms she knew to fill in, and a new business was born. Within a year, she says, 95 people were cleaning 156 houses a week. That was in 1973. Almost 31 years later, after she moved to Redmond and re-opened Elaine's American Maid, she has more than 65 workers serving more than 120 clients a week.
The venture has brought Evans the security she sought -- Including an income while she was a single mom herself, independence and an expansive home In Broadhurst near Ames Lake. I bought this house through housecleaning, all by myself," she says. It has also enabled her to help other single moms get on their feet. ' I fill in their blank spots and help them out so they can be moms and not go on welfare,", Evans says.
All her workers are subcontractors. They're paid $10 to $12 an hour for cleaning. They're free to find their own clients, keeping the entire $25-$30-an-hour fee, as long as they don't poach American Maid's. ' I encourage them to get a piece of the rock," Evans says. ' ' If you can read and write, work hard, are honest and not afraid to get out of bed In the morning, you'll be successful." Offering personalized cleaning
A relentlessly upbeat woman who has dogwood blossoms painted on her fingernails, earned a karate black belt and operates a public relations business on the side, Evans chooses her subcontractors carefully in 1 1 /2 hour Interviews. Rather than just operating a ' ' maid service" she offers a ' ' personalized cleaning service," she says, carefully matching maids to clients' personalities.
' ' I want a business where people truly love to clean toilets," she says. ' ' If they're encouraged and appreciated and thanked and paid well and respected, there is a sense of worthwhileness you get from the job."
Single moms often show up for the initial interview stressed-out and in despair, she says. Not only does she attempt to motivate them to work hard, but she also teaches them entrepreneurship and encourages them to start businesses of their own. Many do. After her mother-in-law's experience, Evans thought of the free housecleaning for cancer patients as a way of helping the cleaners make ends meet.
It's become a labor of love that has attracted donations from customers, who give their cleaning away while they're on vacation, and from subcontractors, who often do part of a cleaning for free. ' It's such a wonderful way for people to help people," Evans says. ' ' It's not limited to people who can't afford It. It's not about that. It's about doing something for someone else, giving the gift of cleaning."
Evans prefers to avoid disclosing her age. She admits, though, to having a 30-year-old daughter who works as a nanny to Madonna; a 22-year-old son who's an award-winning filmmaker; and an 18-yearold son, who excels at football.
Ultimately, she hopes to open a trust account for the foundation, which is led by an oncologist and a social worker from Swedish Hospital, and a former trial attorney who lost his own wife to cancer eight years ago. Her former husband named his four-seat turbine hydroplane ' ' Miss American Maid," and intends to give the public rides to raise money for the effort.
It's a ' ' wonderful thing that doesn't just bless women who can't get off the couch, it blesses their whole families," Evans says. A clean house can help a woman with cancer feel in control, ' 'feel on top of life." It's not all about business for her," says maid McFarland of Evans. ' ' It's not all about money." She's a great lady." - Lori Varosh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-453-4243.
PHOTOS: BY Rick Schweinhart/Journal: 1) Snohomish homeowner Ernie Nicholson works in the kitchen of his Snohomish home as American Maid Katie McFarland cleans the house. 2) Elaine Gordon Evans owns and runs the American Maid housecleaning service.