Clean underwear, solid shoes, blankets and a warm cup of coffee. Simple items, but they make a world of
difference. For many, it’s a struggle to provide themselves and their families with these. On the far side of Delaware, quite literally across the tracks, the Common Ground Free Store sits nestled on a corner of Central Avenue, waiting to offer these essential things to new arrivals.
The heavy wooden door swings inward and blows a burst of cold air into the lobby. A man and a woman enter, dark hair matted with snowflakes. They rub their hands together briskly while taking a seat on the left side of the store.
“Get them a paper towel for their heads,” instructs the woman to my right. “They look freezing. Maybe you two would also like a cup of coffee?”
Beth Trigg, assistant director of the store, slowly sips her own hot beverage as she greets the visitors. She’s wearing simple shoes, jeans and a warm red jacket. Her no-nonsense approach to the store is like a mother caring for her children on a Sunday afternoon in the park. When she talks about the store, it’s clear she loves the place.
Trigg, who started as a volunteer more than four years ago, has worked in every capacity at the store. Cleaning toilets, organizing clothing, making pots of coffee and serving visitors have all previously fallen onto her duty list.
She said all of the wonderful volunteers are what makes the Free Store operate, but the patrons make it worthwhile. The store is open to any individual or family,. Pay stubs, social security cards and proof of welfare aren’t necessary for seeking help here.
“All of god’s people are welcome,” Trigg said. “The stories that turn out well are few and far between, but we have a relationship with these people. They’re not just a number.”
When they first enter, shoppers sit in a small lobby. Square black chairs with metal arms offer rest for weary bodies. Coffee, cookies and lemonade are distributed. Peering through the doorway behind the lobby desk offers a view of the hospitality area. Families and individuals are seated at several odd sized chairs. Volunteers enter a small kitchen on the far side of the room to retrieve food.
The walls of the hospitality area are covered in signs, fliers, certificates, news clippings and photos. They all tell part of the store’s story. Many of these highlight the store’s activities. One sign translates a list of courtesy phrases into Spanish. Another handmade poster board, decorated with colorful marker, tells the reader they may obtain a child’s birthday cake for free.
Old men, young children and couples line the lobby walls, waiting to enter the hospitality area where today’s meal of hot dogs, egg salad, and Johnny Marzetti is being served. While guests wait for their turn, the desk attendants catch up on their children’s lives, hear about life on the farm and praise the glory which is UDF ice cream.
One visitor, an elderly man with a weathered ball cap and a blue jumpsuit, sits across from me in the lobby. He says hello to me, then is approached by the woman behind the desk. Her short brown hair barely stirs and her glasses stay firmly perched on her nose as she walks towards him.
“Would you like some coffee today,” she said.
“No, I already had some,” he said. “I forgot my thermos, so I had to drink it real quick like. Do you have anything cold?”
“Why yes, let me get you some lemonade,” she said.
Upon her return he swigs the lemonade in two gulps and says, “Well that’s good. I’m gonna go shop, then maybe have some more of that.”
He hands a small parcel to the woman behind the desk and waits for her reaction.
“Oh, black walnuts,” she said with a smile on her face. “These are good for cakes and the like.”
“Yeah, I was just pickin’ and grinnin’,” he said, revealing the self-same grin.
Thirty minutes later he walked away with a bag of clothes and a wet whistle.
Trigg said that’s why the location is great. Like this man, many of the store’s guests either don’t have cars or money for gas, so they walk. While the organization doesn’t own the corner brick building, she said they’re hopeful that expansion and purchasing a building are in the future.
A short walk through the store highlights the necessity of expansion. Goods are crammed in every nook and cranny of the place. The store offers clothing, household goods, books, videos, shoes and other miscellaneous items to the public. These are spread on shelves, organized in bins, hung from racks and stacked in every corner.
Christopher Parsons, my assigned guide through the racks and bins, has been a volunteer with the store for about a year. Dressed in sensible slacks and a warm plaid jacket, his graying hair and glasses are a welcoming sight.
He points out his favorite parts of the store, animatedly highlighting each important section on our walk. Parsons has been working with homeless individuals in the Columbus area for about four years, but said the free store is the best organization of its kind he has seen.
“It’s amazing how many families we’re able to serve,” he said, illustrating his point by showing me the line at the checkout station. “It’s a good social practice. It lets people see the other side of the street.”
With a solid spirit and admiration in his voice, Parsons spoke of two men who entered the store that morning who hadn’t eaten in three days. To him, it’s the little miracles and duties of the store which create immense change and satisfaction. He continued to focus on the good works of the free store throughout the journey. The path we walked through the store, which all shoppers take, began when we exited the hospitality area.
There’s a long hallway off the hospitality area which serves as one of three main shopping areas. To the right are shelves filled with books and videos, bins with clean underwear, and household items like towels, convection ovens and tea kettles. Lining the racks on the other side of the wall are baby clothes, boy’s clothing and girl’s clothing. These two white metal racks, one knee level and the other much higher, are divided by age level.
Leaving the hallway sends the shopper into another world where an elaborate mural covers the play space. Flower tendrils creep up the walls, lush bushes line the baseboards and sturdy oak trees grow around the windows to the outside. A squirrel and a rabbit frolic on one of the trees while grass cushions the feet of the tired shopper.
Tonka trucks have been tossed on the floor by the last child to come through. Bookcases are filled with smiling teddy bears and board games. These toys are calling out, waiting to be picked up and loved by a child in need. The toy room appears to be one of the more well-used sections of the store, because children linger and play.
Since there is a 15 minute shopping limit to ensure access to all shoppers, the children are unable to linger very long before making their toy selections and moving into the next room with their parents.
The next and final room of the store houses the adult male and female clothing racks. Similar to the set up in the hallway, three walls are lined with two tiers of clothing racks. Rather than age, these racks are organized by type. Dresses and skirts are on the right, sweaters and pants are across from the door. A central shelved island filled with shoes completes the visit for many. Next to the exit, two volunteers staff a long checkout station where items are counted, bagged and taken off of a shopper’s monthly limit.
20 articles of clothing, 8 accessories, 4 toys, 4 household items, 10 books and 1 winter coat. These are a few of the “per person” totals adhered to. Last year, the store distributed 57, 236 articles of clothing and 9,939 diapers, among a multitude of other things.
These numbers seem high until you hear that the store serves anywhere from 40 to 90 families each of the three weekdays it’s open. With so many families served, and 986 new families added in 2011, it’s hard to believe the racks are stuffed with clothing every day. Until you enter the back room.
The organized chaos which is the back room is evidence of the store’s productivity. Two large tables in the center provide a flat surface for volunteers to sort items and clothing. Three walls of the space are lined with large wooden shelves, towering up to the high ceilings. This place is the miniature warehouse which feeds the store. Crates, bins, boxes and bags are on the shelves. Some have hats, appliances, clothing, shoes, art supplies and even spare cups for the hospitality area. Opening the Employees Only door reveals a hornet’s nest of activity and for today, Wanda Davenport is the queen bee.
Davenport began volunteering at the store 15 months ago when she took her daughter’s place for the day. While she said she usually likes to stay out of the limelight, she admitted that she’d talk to anybody if it was about the store.
She said the organization is always in need of donations. Primarily, these donations come from local churches and individuals. The store gets a surplus of certain items and sends these on to other locations like Volunteers of America and the Salvation Army for processing. Looking around the back room, she spotted an interesting donation she wanted to share. Several bins were filled with bundled pairs of Hanes socks and tighty whities. These came from one church which recently held an Undie Sunday. Every child at the church brought in a new package of underwear or socks. She said in total, they brought in more than 300 pairs for the store.
“This really is the coolest place,” she said. “The first day is confusing, but after that you’ll love it. When you think about the services we offer, it makes you realize that without us, some of these people would have nothing.”
Aside from the volunteers and the donations, Davenport said the children who come to the store are her favorite part.
“The kids are the greatest,” she said, while continuing to unpack boxes. “They’re really good and have a lot of fun. My 6 year-old granddaughter even volunteers here.”
In addition to the boisterous children, she said some of the most amazing events have occurred which make volunteering worthwhile. One day a young woman came in who was set to be married in a short while. Her August wedding was set for the beach and her colors had all been chosen. She walked into the store and found the perfect white dress, paired with a complimentary jacket. Several days later the store received flowers and boutonnieres. They were the bride’s colors.
“Now, you tell me where else something like that could happen,” Davenport said, raising her eyebrows and smiling wide beneath her glasses.
Volunteers like Trigg, Parsons and Davenport have helped the store function and grow, but a variety of events entice shoppers to come together for community bonding several times a month. A monthly bingo night is held for registered shoppers. The prizes of toilet paper and laundry soap may seem unrewarding for the average reader, but these items are vital for the families who visit the free store. The bingo prizes are provided by sponsoring churches, which also offer babysitting services during the event, and are items which can’t be purchased with food stamps. On the third Sunday of every month the store also offers an open church service.
Trigg’s passion for the bingo night and the Sunday services is clear. She beamed with pride when she informed me that no one is discouraged from attending or sharing at these services. Anyone with a message in their heart is welcome to share.
As she continued to greet customers, she spoke about the future of the store. The organization would like to expand on these events and become even more involved in the community. A children’s garden in Eastside Park, vacation bible school, a boys fishing event and Mommy & Me classes are on the horizon for the store.
Pausing in her sentiments, Trigg instructed the main door greeter to collect hats and caps from the shelves and put a bin next to the door.
“Silly goose, he needs to pick up a new coat with a hood today,” she said, lightly chastising one of her regular visitors.
For the rest of the afternoon, visitors to the store were offered caps to keep their heads warm in the winter weather.
“I wish I had a nickel for everybody who asks what this store is about,” she said, slowly shaking her head from side to side.
For Trigg and others, the store is a window into the lives of those who need assistance. It is a vehicle of change in the community and a helping hand for those in need. For those who ask, help will always be given at the store. Shoppers, volunteers, churches, donators and community members come together on the common ground this space has created. This is a place of love, caring and acceptance.
For some, the store appears to be on the wrong side of the tracks, in a less fortunate part of town. For the volunteers and the people who visit the store, it is definitely the right side. Perfectly located where it may do the most good, the store opens its doors and stretches its arms out, calling for all to come enjoy the benefits of a warm coat and a hot meal.