The Lions Free Store Fills the Need
Lion Mike Kerek is Secretary, Operations Chair, and Leo Advisor for the Reynoldsburg Lions, 2nd VDG and Communications Chair for District 13-F. Outside of Lions he is a worship leader and choir member at his church and is a member of the Franklin County Community Emergency Response Team.
It started with a 14-year-old girl who wanted to help the homeless.
Where There is a Need…
In November 2010, Lion Mike Kerek was with his church youth group on an outing. During a refreshment break, one of the young members expressed a desire to help those who were less fortunate. Knowing the need was unquestionable, Mike agreed to put something together. He decided, with the group’s consent, to hold the event at his place of business.
Lion Mike manages a metal recycling facility and sees these types of individuals every day. Homeless people who live in tents, cardboard castles or under bridges are the extreme examples; but even those who have roofs over their heads often go without basic necessities. They recycle cans, aluminum, steel and any other metal they can scavenge from dumpsters, trash cans and along the street to survive. For some, it’s the only income they have. Many families struggle in similar fashions.
…There is a Lion
The next morning Mike went to his church, Northridge Church of Christ (NCOC), and pitched an idea of a Free Store – a place where people could come and take things they needed with no hassle. “If you need it, take it,” was to be the mantra. While there would be limits of how many of each item a person could take, there would be no background checks or income verifications. As Mike put it to the church, “Anyone who takes something from a Free Store obviously needs it.” Two days later he proposed it to his Lions club, the Columbus Southeast Lions.
The First “Free Store” and Its Growth
Within a week, donations started pouring in. Mike allocated a storage room and, with the help of one of his employees, set up a Free Store for the Saturday prior to Christmas. Several youth group members came and helped at the event. The first Free Store served 118 people. It was a “feel good moment,” one that everyone wanted to repeat. The decision was made to hold it again the following year.
In addition to NCOC and the Southeast Lions, Lions from other clubs were starting to donate, and local Girl Scout Troop 605 took the Free Store on as a project. There were enough donations to expand to a week-long venture. After discussing it with his staff, Mike decided to build some wooden racking, rearrange the warehouse front end, and run the store side-by-side to the business. Customers could come in, do their “scrapping,” and head into the Free Store area before cashing out their tickets. Over 400 were served that year, and the Free Store was firmly established. The last full week prior to Christmas was designated as “Free Store Week,” and it has been that week since.
The Free Store has grown steadily since its humble beginnings. From 118 people served the first year, it served approximately 1,200 in 2015. All remaining donated items are bagged by type, labeled and given to area shelters. Nothing that is donated to the Free Store has been or ever will be given to an organization or establishment that participates in resale. The items were donated with the understanding that they would be given, free of charge, to someone in need – the Lions’ promise to the donors. It is estimated that an additional 2,500 – 3,000 people benefited from these donations last year, and it will be at least that number in 2015.
Providing Relief in the Wake of Disaster
In addition, when needs are presented to Mike, either through the scrapyard, church or Lions, the Free Store donations are searched for applicable contributions. Situations such as house fires, evictions, illness, theft, etc. are a part of life; while the Free Store is not set up to meet long-term needs, it can help with basic necessities to get past the initial traumatic days. An effort to help even larger scale tragedies has been made – when Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in 2012, the Free Store mailed (with the financial assistance of District 13-F and PDG Debbie Luttrell) 27 large boxes of clothes (enough to fill half a normal bedroom) and other items requested.
Support from the Community
The sphere of support has also increased. Since 2010, Columbus Southeast Lions Club (who remains the flagship club for this project) have been joined by three District zones, 12 different Lions Clubs, and the 100 or so members of those clubs in District 13-F who have donated, both in commodities and monetarily. The Reynoldsburg Lions Club has also embraced the Free Store and has been a major contributor of not only material goods, but help. Local businesses and churches have also supported the Free Store by donating items, time, space and resources each year.
Lion Mike developed a relationship with the Sam Bish Foundation, an organization that assists families who have children with pediatric cancer. Throughout the year, as donations that would benefit foundation families come into the Free Store, Mike contacts the foundation and, when a match works out, delivers the item(s). The relationship works both ways – there are times when a foundation family has furniture or other commodities available that Mike is able to redistribute to another family in need.
If You Need It, Take It
The Free Store operates the last full week prior to Christmas. The “If you need it, take it” attitude has continued to be the modus operandi since the beginning.
The Free Store not only gives folks who are experiencing a tough time in their lives with a physical boost, says Lion Mike Kerek. It also provides hope. It tells them that someone cares enough about them to try and make their lives a little better. For some, that may be the best gift they can receive. We work with other organizations that have similar goals. All of us working together can really make a positive dent in the problem areas. But it takes all of us.
Until you have seen a grown man cry because he comes in wet and cold with 4 pounds of cans in his hands (worth about $2) to get him through the night, and he walks out dry and warm with $200 of new clothes on…
…Until you hand a 3-year-old child a stuffed animal and the little arms wrap around it in a death grip, and you find out that the child has no toys…
…Until you see a 20-year-old single mother of three with no money and no clue what she’s going to do, and she walks out with a Christmas tree, toys and a full bag of clothes for her and her children…
…Until you experience one of these moments, you have no clue how much of an impact you, as a volunteer or a donor, can have on another person’s life.
I would encourage every single Lion out there to find a program that is comparable. If you can’t find one, create one. Make it a project, either on the club or district level. I know approximately how many people this little Free Store is helping every year. I can’t even begin to think how many other hurting individuals and families could benefit from the combined efforts of 1.4 million of us working together.