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Campus' 'Free Store' Offers Helping Hand --- No Price Tag Attached

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
November 19, 2017
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News, White Oak News

(Brooke Doerfler photo courtesy Penn State Greater Allegheny)

A new store opened on the McKeesport-White Oak border last week and attracted nearly 40 customers on its first day. And yet it didn't bring in a dime in sales.

Of course, it wasn't supposed to.

The new "Free Store" on the campus of Penn State Greater Allegheny is an outgrowth of the five-year-old Free Store 15104 in Braddock, which takes surplus and donated items and redistributes them to people in need. In 2015, a similar "Free Store" opened in Wilkinsburg.

The Greater Allegheny store, located at the rear of the Frable Building, is totally student-run and is the first on a college campus, says Erin O'Malley, interim director of student affairs.

O'Malley is from North Braddock and is involved with Braddock's Partnership for a Better Community, so she's seen that borough's Free Store up-close and personal.

Shortly after new Chancellor Jacqueline Edmondson arrived in McKeesport, O'Malley introduced her to Giselle Fetterman, founder of the Free Store 15104.

(Brooke Doerfler photo courtesy Penn State Greater Allegheny)

Edmondson was taken with the idea of bringing the Free Store idea to the McKeesport area, "and the rest is history," O'Malley says.

Within a month, students had rallied to send letters to West Mifflin, McKeesport and South Allegheny school districts, asking for donations, O'Malley says. Mary of Nazareth Catholic School in White Oak held a food drive, while South Allegheny students and faculty collected clothing.

Jennifer Halaszynski, chief of staff for state Rep. Bill Kortz of Dravosburg, also helped spread the word, says Victoria Garwood, campus director of enrollment management and communications.

In the meantime, Penn State Greater Allegheny's physical plant team converted a neglected storage area into a workable store that could be visited by the public.

"They did amazing work, too, painting it, building a new wall, providing shelving," Garwood says.

A soft opening was held on Tuesday and regular hours will be 12 noon to 2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, except during university holidays and breaks.

From now until Jan. 1, the store will be open on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 7, 8, 14 and 15. The store will re-open Jan. 11 and 12.

Although customers are not required to prove they have a need, the Free Stores in Braddock and Wilkinsburg do have rules about the number of items any single person can take at one time.

Items available are naturally limited to whatever donations have come in --- Garwood and O'Malley says the Greater Allegheny store currently has baby food and clothes, a few toys and children's coats.

On opening day, customers came from McKeesport, West Mifflin and Clairton, and were looking for car seats, winter coats and gloves, pants and shoes, baby formula, diapers (both for infants and toddlers as well as for adults) and housewares.

(Brooke Doerfler photo courtesy Penn State Greater Allegheny)

"We would love more new stuff," O'Malley says. "We're looking for places that are going out of business or perhaps are overstocked."

Besides being an opportunity to give back to the campus' neighbors, Garwood says the store is designed as a learning experience.

"As the store grows, we will also be incorporating our business students --- specifically our project and supply chain management majors," she says.

But students, not faculty or staff, will oversee the store's operations, and a core group of 10 to 15 have already committed to working at the campus Free Store, Garwood says.

Eventually, the campus Free Store may welcome volunteers from the community, including Penn State alumni, but O'Malley says they're not ready yet.

But they are seeking donations from the public, she says --- especially of those items such as baby formula and car seats that are being requested by visitors.

Items that are being donated should be new or very slightly used, and their value may be tax-deductible for donors, O'Malley says. People interested in making a donation should call (412) 675-9181, she says. 

The collaborative effort to get the store open, as well as the buy-in from the Mon-Yough area community, have both been rewarding, Garwood says.

"It means a lot to us to be able to serve the community in this way," she says.

Originally published November 19, 2017.

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