Free Store

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in Braddock and in a vacant lot along the stretch of the main avenue are two colorful shipping containers. A woman with modern-looking freestanding crutches on one leg is holding a baby in one arm and a box of donated clothing in the other, shuttling between the two containers, stopping to talk to people midway. It’s a balancing act for sure, and Gisele Barreto Fetterman does it effortlessly.

Barreto-Fetterman is working at the Free Store, an organization she founded two years ago on October 2, to provide a service that would make a difference to the community where she lives. “I wanted to create a place where we can take existing resources and use that to solve a problem. In this case clothing and basic goods that many take for granted, and in so doing, contribute some sense of security for someone who is going through very difficult times.”

The idea for the Free Store has been something Barreto-Fetterman had been thinking about since she moved to Braddock almost seven years ago. One day, she decided it was time and came up with the logo that she used as a visual mantra to keep the project moving. She scouted a location and quickly found one. “There were so many open lots from buildings that have been demolished. I wanted to take one of those spaces and put something up that is useful to the community. I didn’t want a brick and mortar space, I wanted something sustainable, something that already uses what we have.”

And that is truly one of the underlying philosophies of the Free Store: working with what is already available. Redirecting resources–that would otherwise be wasted or discarded—toward individuals and organizations that can use them.

“People ask me, “how can I help, what can I buy?” and I tell everyone to only donate what they already have or can find. I only say yes to diapers and formula because we always need those–but I don’t want to add to consumerism. I only want to solve problems with resources that already exist, especially since so much goes to waste.”

She found a vacant lot and reached out to Heritage Community Initiatives which owns it. Then she bought a shipping container, funded by the honorarium her husband, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, received in a speaking engagement.

For the Free Store’s opening weekend two years ago, the inventory consisted of what  Barreto-Fetterman had in her closet and children’s clothes from a clothing drive that a Carter’s store at the Waterfront ran for the organization.

“That was one of our early challenges—how do we keep inventory available?” she says. But that challenge was short-lived as the grand opening was a wild success and donations started to come regularly.

“We also partnered with Kids/Fashion Delivers who direct new product donations to us. Some of the brands that we have had the fortune of receiving include Carter’s, Gymboree and Crazy 8. And last year we were so happy to be able to give out so many Lego sets during the holiday season.”

The Free Store received so many Legos last year that Barreto-Fetterman sent out a media alert and people came from far and wide. “That was really special and I’m very grateful for their support.”

On November 5th, Kids/Fashion Delivers is holding a gala at the Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Free Store is one of the three agencies that will be featured in a video that highlights how the agency puts their partnerships to work. It’s a recognition that Barreto-Fetterman appreciates.

The Free Store also receives regular donations from companies like Costco and McGinnis Sisters and has been the recipient of sets, props and clothes from movies that were shot in Pittsburgh.

Barreto-Fetterman is quick to mention that while donations from large organizations make a huge difference, the Freestore “depends on the consistency of everyday donors” to keep a stable inventory.

The Free Store is open three days a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00-2:30 and on Saturdays from 11:00-2:00. It is run completely by volunteers and the only overhead is a $30 a month electric bill.

The Free Store will hold a celebration of its second year anniversary on October 4 with music, food and, of course, free things.

Since opening, the Free Store has grown to serve 400 people a week and is the first-stop for many social services in the county. “We serve households who foster children, women who are leaving abusive relationships, parents who have lost their jobs,” says Baretto-Fetterman.

The Free Store turns no one away and never asks for qualifications. Everyone is served equally. “People ask me, how do you know that that person is in need?” says Baretto-Fetterman. “My response is always, “because they told me they were.”

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.