Stevensville's 'free store' helps people in need

2011-02-07T07:00:00Z 2011-02-08T06:24:35Z Stevensville's 'free store' helps people in needBy PERRY BACKUS of the Ravalli Republic missoulian.com
February 07, 2011 7:00 am  • 

STEVENSVILLE - The call came shortly after volunteers finished moving Stevensville's Clothes Closet into its new building two years ago.

Gail Fischer can remember it still.

There was a man on the line who said he'd just moved here from Missouri. He'd been reading about this store where people can pick up clothing, household items and books for free without any questions asked.

After listening for a few minutes, the man said he had something he'd like to give Fischer, the store's volunteer manager.

The man showed up at Fischer's doorstep and handed her a check for $500.

"He told her he'd been where these people who need help are," Fischer said. "And now, he was in a position where he could help. That's just what he wanted to do."

That story is one that Fischer has heard time and again.

"We have people coming in here all the time just wanting the help," she said. "It boggles your mind. When we get low on stuff, sometimes I think ‘uh-oh' and then by the end of the week, this place will be just overflowing with new stuff."

"It's a wonderful feeling to be part of this," Fischer said. "We help put clothes on people's backs."

Last year, volunteers gave away more than 38.5 tons - 77,244 pounds to be exact - of clothing and a variety of household items to nearly 10,000 people who walked through the door.

More than 50 community volunteers donated about 7,500 hours of their time to serve clients and get donations ready for distribution at the old blue house just off Middle Burnt Fork Road.

The building was virtually donated to the Clothes Closet by the Stevensville School District after the structure that formerly housed the store was torn down.

"We were desperately looking for a new place to go," remembered Molly Hackett, chair of the Closet's board of directors. "At that point we had $600 in the bank, which wasn't going to get us very far."

But what they did have was a long history of helping those who needed a hand up from their community.

The idea for a "free store" to basically recycle clothes from one family to the next began in a Florence garage as a Girl Scout project. When it outgrew that space, it moved to Lois Staves' garage up Three Mile Road before eventually winding its way onto Stevensville's Main Street and then onto the school property.

"It has just worked out fantastically for us," said Stevensville School Superintendent Kent Kultgen. "It fits into our philosophy of being a community school district. It's been a great outreach to our community."

The district charges the Clothes Closet $1 a month, plus a small amount to maintain the road into the house.

By next year, the store will share space in a brand new building that will house Pantry Partners, the community's food bank. The new structure will be built on an acre set aside by the school district.

"I couldn't begin to tell you how many people this has helped over the years," Hackett said. "We are talking thousands. The demand is continually increasing."

*****

There are plenty of stories to tell.

There was the young man who came in looking for something nice to wear to his first job interview.

"This kid came back and gave our volunteers a big hug while saying: ‘I got the job. I got the job,' " Hackett said.

This winter, a family with 10 children stopped by looking for warm clothes. In about one hour after soliciting contributions, the children were outfitted with brand new hats, gloves, mittens, snowsuits and blankets.

"I could just go on and on and on telling you stories like those," Hackett said.

No money ever changes hands at the store. There is a locked donation box where contributions can be left, but no one is ever asked to donate.

A volunteer at the desk keeps track of the number of people who come through the door and then weighs the bags of items each shopper has filled.

People can take as much as they need.

The store is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m.

"We want this to be a place where people's dignity is important," said Kathy Edman, a board member. "We welcome the shoppers who come through the door."

The volunteers who work at the store do everything in their power to ensure that all the donations go to good use. The clothes that are beyond repair are cut in rags that are sold to a local automobile garage, with the proceeds helping to pay for utilities and other expenses at the shop.

Much of that work is accomplished by a team of 90-year-old women.

"We don't like to add to the trash stream," Edman said. "If we can't use it, then we try to find someone else who can."

Volunteers are the backbone of this operation.

"It's just running so smoothly now," Hackett said. "The better it does, the more support we get from the community."

Much of the credit for keeping the ship pointed in the right direction goes to Fischer.

"She has been amazing," Hackett said. "It's as if she and the Clothes Closet were made for each other. ... Every once in a while, I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about what would happen if she couldn't do it any more."

"It's been such a neat thing to be part of," Hackett said. "I think everyone who is involved would tell you the same thing. ... A couple of retired people have told me: ‘This is what gives my life meaning. Thanks for allowing me to part of it.'"

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic

 

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