LuLu’s Free Store: Offering a chic shopping experience free of charge | Helping the Helpers
‘It really had a great effect. It was very de-stigmatized. That was the change I wish to see in the world,’ Grace Reid-Vensel said
LuLu’s Free Store offers a chic, non-transactional shopping experience at popup events, where folks are invited to browse clothing, home goods, beauty products and children’s items. In July, clothing was hung with care outside the Washington City Mission, and upcoming events are posted in advance to the nonprofit’s Instagram (Uniontown Herald Standard photo).
By Katherine Mansfield
Those who know Grace Reid-Vensel, a compassionate, creative 17-year-old North Franklin Township resident, know she has a penchant for shopping.
So when the high schooler decided to start a nonprofit, founding a free store simply made sense.
“As I kid, I loved shopping. I loved shopping so much,” Reid-Vensel, founder of LuLu’s Free Store, said. “I want to create that experience of reinvention when you get something new to you.”
LuLu’s Free Store, awarded nonprofit status in September, is a start-up that offers a chic shopping experience for those on a budget.
“Our central mission is to provide hope, warmth and dignity throughout Western Pennsylvania by providing free access to the material necessities in life,” said Reid-Vensel, a senior at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. “Getting a new set of PJs, a new pillow to throw on your couch, a new body wash – picking out new things, it feels like your life is reinvented. The positivity that can come from the experience of shopping, even if it isn’t transactional, is really important for people’s dignity.”
LuLu’s Free Store is modeled on trendy popup boutiques, well, popping up around the U.S. What sets the nonprofit apart from other popups and boutiques on wheels is that every item for sale at LuLu’s has a price tag of zero.
“I sort of realized amid the pandemic, I kind of had an awakening: You can never assume the position of the people around you,” said Reid-Vensel, who serves as vice president of Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center’s student council.
Lincoln Park is located in Midland, where the poverty rate is 18%. Last year, Reid-Vensel worked with other student organizations to host a free store during lunchtimes ahead of the holiday season.
“It really had a great effect. It was very de-stigmatized. That was the change I wish to see in the world,” Reid-Vensel said. “It inspired me to bring it to my community.”
The theater major has family ties to Washington and West Alexander and saw the need for a non-transactional shopping experience in Western Pennsylvania. In July, Reid-Vensel partnered with the City Mission in Washington, where her popup shop was well-received.
“It’s needed everywhere, support like that,” Reid-Vensel said. “It’s just so touching to see the effects that just such a small act of kindness … can have on someone’s day or someone’s life. Being able to shop for a birthday gift for your niece, having the dignity of being able to give someone a gift, or give yourself a gift, especially when they’ve had days they were not able to. I’m thankful to be the person who provides that. I’m even more grateful that people get help.”
To continue helping, the fledgling nonprofit needs donations. LuLu’s Free Store accepts donations of new and lightly used clothing, jewelry and home goods, and new health and beauty products.
And, of course, “we would love funding,” Reid-Vensel said.
“We would love to get a van so that we can travel and kind of be a popup free boutique for people to walk in and have that full shopping experience,” Reid-Vensel said. “Funding is great and donations are awesome, too.”
While LuLu’s Free Store works to establish a Venmo, donations of any kind can be made in person. Those interested in making donations to LuLu’s Free store may reach out to Reid-Vensel through Instagram or email to arrange a drop-off date, time and location.
Of course, what’s a boutique without shoppers? Folks are invited to browse LuLu’s Free Store’s selection of clothes in an array of sizes, home decor, infant items and more at the shop’s next event. Events are posted one week in advance on social media.
LuLu’s Free Store is just getting started, and Reid-Vensel is excited to grow her nonprofit and serve the needs of her community and beyond.
“(Theater) has definitely given me a lens of empathy, the act of stepping into someone else’s shoes. My roots in theater has definitely propelled me to enact change in my community,” Reid-Vensel said. “I would love to take this through my adulthood.”
Katherine Mansfield is a reporter for the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa. Helping the Helpers is a joint effort of the Uniontown Herald-Standard and the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Readers may email him at [email protected].
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