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Natural Awakenings SW PA, Greater Pittsburgh

Community Spotlight - The Free Store

Dec 01, 2021 01:28PM ● By Sven Hosford

Gisele Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, is the founder of The Free Store, in Braddock. The store has three rules: Be kind; Pay it forward; and Take only what you need. She explains, "It’s a place of dignity and of love and warmth for families who have a need. They can come and have that need fulfilled. We work with people who bring donations, as well as retailers that have surplus goods. Instead of those items ending up in a landfill, they actually fill the need of families." Run entirely by volunteers for nine years, the store is open three days a week. No money is exchanged.


The store operates out of decommissioned shipping containers that would have ended up in a landfill, serving about 100 families an hour at 13 locations across the country with partner organizations. Fetterman also co-founded 412 Food Rescue, which has rescued more than 21 million pounds of food. She notes, “We wanted to inspire and show folks that there is a better alternative than just putting more things into the waste stream cycle; to have a different perspective around excess. Why and how can we be creative to actually meet some solutions with what we already have on our hands?”


Many people think that the organization must be run by a religious or other sponsor, but The Free Store is not affiliated with any church. "People can just do good things if they’re the right things to do,” says Fetterman. As a native of Brazil, she witnessed how things were so easily discarded in the U.S., as well as the pronounced economic disparity in a land of plenty.


“Growing up, I came to this country as a young immigrant. I was around families who were receiving all types of different support and experiences and a lot of good things, shares Fetterman. "With a lot of these organizations, you have to prove that you are hungry, you have to prove that you're in need, and that often means bringing your taxes in and other documents. And I think that's a very dehumanizing experience for a family that's already in pain, having to kind of double experience it. So I wanted to create something that was really different and really dignified, and we believe people. People come in and if you're in need and we have what you want, then you take it. No questions asked.”


As a child, Fetterman remembers helping her mother furnish their entire home by collecting what was tossed out on garbage day. “I remember as a child being shocked that all this furniture, all these things were going straight to landfill were going to be destroyed when families just like mine could have benefited from it. It created this sense of responsibility—that I needed to find homes for things. We saw dumpster diving firsthand. I saw what grocery stores were throwing out, and again, that was a shock to me,” she explains. “I wanted to create a kinder space, a kindness movement, one of acceptance. We're not that different, we're not that far apart, and I wanted to bring the world together. I wanted to challenge the idea of value, and who decides who has it and who doesn't.”


Other types of community outreach and partnerships include Narcan clinics and sexually-transmitted disease screening. “We’ve become a safe hub for so much more to happen. We’re kind of a go-to place for things that might be difficult to get off the ground. If they think people won't show up, they know that if they work with us, people come." says Fetterman. "We've done gun buyback programs with the city of Pittsburgh."


About volunteering, Fettermen says, “It’s a fun job. We appreciate people that reach out, but... I tell people that want to be engaged that you can ask your supermarket what they are doing with their excess things. At the places you frequent and shop, you can become an advocate to end waste by asking these questions. When I opened The Free Store, I made friends with the manager of all these different children's stores and they asked, 'What do you do with returns? What do you do with slight damages? What do you do with last season's things?’ I learned that they were all going to the landfill, and since then, they all come to us and we can give them all back out families.”


Fetterman’s plans continuing to assist people create a store in their own community. “I help them with that model, with initial partnerships, and then I watch them grow. My dream would be that every community would have a Free Store. We should all be concerned for our environment, for keeping clothing in circulation for reusing and recycling. I think something like that brings the community together, where there is exchange happening, where you're meeting people from different worlds. I think that's something that will always be of benefit.”


Donations and volunteers are always welcome. The Free Store is located at 420 Braddock Ave., in Braddock. For more information, call 201-532-1722 or visit

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