Gisele Fetterman meant the Free Store to be a five-year project. It’s now 10 years old

‘I wanted to show that we could invest in the circular economy, and this is a model that can exist in any community,’ she said

By: - January 22, 2023 6:30 am

Gisele Fetterman at the Free Store’s birthday party in November 2022 (Photo courtesy of Gisele Fetterman).

BRADDOCK, Pa.  — When Gisele Barreto Fetterman started the Free Store 15104 in Braddock back in 2012, she wanted to figure out a way to get discarded goods to people who needed them, to try to eradicate food and clothing insecurity in one of western Pennsylvania’s poorest communities.

 “The goal was that it was going to be a five-year project,” she told the Capital-Star. “I wanted to show that we could invest in the circular economy, and this is a model that can exist in any community.” 

Set in two colorfully-painted shipping containers in a lot on Braddock’s main street the Free Store is stocked with donated goods, from food to clothing to home goods, and everything is free for anyone who needs it. It began with items from Fetterman’s own closet, and grew to take in donations from across  Allegheny county. 

“Families have grown up with us, we’ve supported babies from the womb and now they’re 10 years old, and some of the people with us became volunteers after they benefited from the Free Store,” she said. “I feel like it’s something that can’t end, because it’s just so beloved in the community.” 

Indeed, more than a decade later, there are Free Stores in 13 communities across the country. 

“It’s all been cases where someone in that community has reached out and said ‘I love this model, I believe my community could benefit,’” Fetterman said.

 “So then we take it from there; we have one in a church, we have one on a reservation, we helped start, Erie, Pennsylvania has one. So we’re kind of all over,” she continued d. “And as people reach out, we continue to grow.” 

As the spouse of newly-elected US Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., she’s spent some time in Washington D.C., and says she’s heard interest about starting a Free Store there as well.

Recycling as a lifestyle

Gisele Fetterman is a staunch proponent of the circular economy, of recycling things, and reusing things that already exist. 

That dedication goes beyond the Free Store: Her Instagram is full of photos of her in thrifted and stylish clothes, including the dress she wore to her husband’s inauguration earlier this month. 

She was a co-founder of Pittsburgh-based 412 Food Rescue, which receives donated food from grocery stores and restaurants and redistributes them to food banks and shelters. 

“It’s been a lifelong thing for me,” Fetterman said. “When I came to this country from Brazil, we were immigrants and we were undocumented and learning our way around.” 

The family would go dumpster-diving to furnish their apartment in New York City, and she was shocked by the amount of waste she saw. 

“We had just moved to a country where people were dying of hunger to a country where everything felt so disposable. There was no thought around just discarding things,” she recalled. 

Her mother cleaned houses and sometimes would be gifted the clothes of the children who lived there. 

“To me I never looked down on second-hand clothes, to me it was always cool. It’s just been a very normal part of my life, and whatever rooms I was able to get into I’ve tried to normalize what has been my lifestyle forever,” she said. 

Fetterman said she doesn’t expect her husband’s new job to take her away from Braddock and the Free Store.; She noted that  the family, which includes the Fettermans’ three kids, adjusted to his job as lieutenant governor, which kept him in Harrisburg for long stretches of time. 

She jokes that her ADHD is a kind of superpower that helps her cope with the pace of being a political spouse.

“I feel my best when I am overwhelmed; I have two stages, overwhelmed or completely bored,” she said. “I’ve worked really well, juggling a lot. I need to feel that there’s a lot going on at all times,” she said. .

No desire to run for office

When John Fetterman suffered a stroke just before the primary election last year, Gisele stepped in for him at public appearances until he was able to get back on the campaign trail. 

His recovery continues, she said, and she thinks the experience of having auditory processing issues ultimately made him a better politician.

 “He was already very empathetic, but he’s had this personal struggle which so many American families are having every single day, he just had to do it very publicly,” she said. 

She added that even though initiatives such as the Free Store exist because of policy failures, Fetterman has no desire to run for office herself. 

“I can just work hard to elect good legislators who will create change, but I will never be one of those,” she said.

And now, in addition to running the Free Store and her household, Fetterman is in training to become a volunteer firefighter, something she’s wanted to do since she was a kid. 

“A really cool thing is that I’m the elder at the academy. I’m the oldest person in the class, a first for me,” she said. “So the kids can see that you’re never too old to pursue a passion and I just want to keep learning and keep growing.”

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly