Clean as a Whistle

USD Students in front of the Think Dignity mobile showers truck


Five years ago, the nonprofit Think Dignity launched Fresh Start, the first mobile shower program in San Diego, serving those who are experiencing or are on the cusp of homelessness. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic meant these hygiene services were no longer safe to operate.

“We were at this moral impasse, whether to run a program and provide services and risk peoples’ health or completely shut down to the point where people don’t have access,” says Merlynn Watanabe ’16 (MA), programs and operations manager with Think Dignity and a Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies alumna. “That’s where USD stepped in and was really thinking about how to create solutions that could support us.”

In the fall of 2020, Think Dignity partnered with the university through the Changemaker Challenge to brainstorm ways that Fresh Start could resume operations safely. With possible solutions proposed by the USD student body, Think Dignity enlisted the help of engineering graduate Matteo Hernandez ’20 (BS/BA) to make this goal a reality.

“The student body came up with a solution to disinfect surfaces as well as remove as much air as possible,” says Hernandez. “That was my goal, to create a new air-handling system for the mobile showers as well as a misting system to ensure all surfaces were disinfected.”

That goal became reality this summer when Think Dignity once again opened the Fresh Start shower doors with the new systems installed. Hernandez says his education uniquely assisted him in addressing this problem. “Within my engineering degree, I have a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts,” he says. “So I’m able to look at the technical engineering side as well as understand the user’s needs.”

It’s this emphasis on human dignity that Watanabe sees as a cornerstone of a Changemaker education. “I was able to get where I am because of USD,” she says. “Now I’m able to join forces with USD to do more in the community and to really be the example and embodiment of what a Changemaker looks like in San Diego.” — Allyson Meyer ’16 (BA), ’21 (MBA) 

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