It took a woman with a giving heart and big imagination to help turn a vacant lot in Braddock into one of her community’s best assets: the Free Store, where individuals and corporations donate new or gently used items for people who need them.
The extraordinary woman behind this effort is Gisele Fetterman. Born in Brazil, her family moved to Queens, N.Y., when she was 11. She recalled her mother furnishing their home with items that they would find on the sidewalk, repurposing discarded items for a fresh start. Eventually, she landed in Newark, N.J., to set up shop as a nonprofit nutritionist.
Then one day, she heard about Braddock.
“I remember learning about this [largely] abandoned city, and for some reason, I felt compelled to write the borough a letter. I told them about the nutrition program I had started in Newark, and I wanted to bring it to them,” she paused and smiled wistfully. “That was how I met the mayor of Braddock, my now husband, John [Fetterman]. I came to visit Braddock eight years ago, and I never left.”
Does anyone besides me love a good social work story with a side of romance?
The couple feels responsible for the 2,300 people who live in this impoverished mill town, and she wanted to do something to help deal with the challenges, including the lack of a grocery store.
The nonprofit Braddock Redux (founded by her husband) partnered with Heritage Community Initiatives and a New York City-based organization called Kids in Distressed Situations to open the store in October 2012. It’s filled with clothing for men, women, teenagers, children and babies, and other essentials such as towels, diapers and formula.
Parked on an abandoned lot next to a daycare center, the Free Store is housed in a shipping container painted bright colors.
There are three rules:
(1) Be kind.
(2) Take only what you need.
(3) Pay it forward.
“My kids inspire me,” she said, just days after giving birth to her third child. “They are constantly growing out of their clothes, and I realized that there are a lot of things that go to waste in our community that people could reuse.”
The store serves more than 400 people a week from all over Allegheny County. The day I visited, Mrs. Fetterman and a handful of volunteers (including Dorothy Guy and her grandson, Johnathan White) were handing out 2,285 pounds of orange juice that had been delivered from a large chain store. The juice would have been thrown away because the company did not mark the boxes with expiration dates. The individual juices were marked correctly but not the larger boxes.
This is fairly common, Mrs. Fetterman said. So common, in fact, that she is expanding the Free Store. She has acquired another shipping container to handle the surplus of items that arrive, from perishables to clothing and everything in between.
“John thinks this is the best thing that we have ever been able to do for Braddock,” she said with a smile. And she isn’t the only one who thinks so. One of her biggest donors, Terry Pietrzyk, said it’s a joy and honor to contribute to her community. “My whole family grew up here. I want to look out for others in my neighborhood,” she said.
If you want to get involved by volunteering or donating items, call 201-532-1722, or stop by during store hours: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and (most) Saturday mornings.
Check them out online http://www.freestore15104.org/