Charlene Nguyen was 18 years old when she fled communist Vietnam for Virginia.
She landed a job at Arlington’s Old Dominion Cleaners (4036 Lee Highway) in 1985, and finally lay to rest the two years she spent living in fear of communists and surviving on meager portions of rice.
In 1996, she and her husband Tien, who she sponsored when he came to the U.S., took over the dry-cleaning business. They have operated Old Dominion for the last 25 years, greeting customers by name and treating them like family.
But the new work-from-home normal has almost completely erased that quarter-century of work. Like other local dry cleaning businesses, Old Dominion Cleaners is hurting.
“It’s heartbreaking to see my business going down so fast since mid-March,” Charlene Nguyen said. “It went down 90% and hasn’t bounced back. We have to open every day, but we don’t have customers because people aren’t going to work.”
The business is on the brink of closure, and has not benefited from any local and state grants. Last week, however, devoted customers teamed up to give the family business a boost.
On Sept. 26, Alex Berger and Kelly James set up a GoFundMe page. Their team also includes Alan Wade, Maria Voultsides and Matt Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn, a photographer with a studio in Arlington, decided to charge a minimum sitting fee of $50 for pet portrait sessions that would benefit the GoFundMe campaign. As of Monday afternoon, the group effort has raised nearly $15,000.
Few are getting their clothes dry cleaned these days, said Mendelsohn, who used to bring his suits in before photographing weddings. When he dropped off clothing last week, the racks that are normally full of customer clothing were empty, he said.
The studio photographer is known in town for his portraits of pets and their humans, which he has taken for the last 15 years, as well as his headline-grabbing, socially-distanced photos of 2020 Yorktown High School seniors.
Normally, when Mendelsohn hosts his annual Dog Day Photo Marathon, he does not charge a sitting fee, but this year he asked patrons to donate to the GoFundMe and show him the receipts.
The marathon took place on Sunday, and 25 people sat with their pets for portraits.
“It was beautiful and fun. We made gorgeous pictures and had a good time,” he said. “It takes zero effort to help people out.”
Mendelsohn said Charlene is known in the community for her cheer, work ethic and humor. For years, when the photographer brought in his suits, she would give him lollipops for his daughter. Now, his daughter is 17 years old, and they talk about Charlene and her college-aged kids.
“She’s fantastic,” he said. “She’s always cheery and never in a grumpy mood, even though I’m in a grumpy mood.”
The GoFundMe organizers spent one week fundraising, which is not a lot of effort compared to the 25 years that Charlene has spent being kind to customers, Mendelsohn said.
Charlene came through once more for her customers when the country experienced mask shortages earlier this year. She and her staff made about 400 masks a week from fabric that Charlene had from when she used to sew custom shirts.
They gave out the masks for free.
After the Nguyens helped customers protect themselves, fundraiser organizers say it is time to help them in return.
“It’s like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,'” Mendelsohn said. “George Bailey is in trouble and people rallied. So we rallied, and hopefully that gives them some breathing room.”
The gift has left Charlene at a loss for words.
“I don’t know how to say it, but I want to thank everybody who is helping us out,” she told ARLnow. “Words can’t be enough.”