UT’s Office of Sustainability has a mission of reducing campus waste. Recently, they have pursued this goal, under the principle that “Vols Help Vols,” with the creation of the Free Store.
The Free Store is a pop-up event that offers students a variety of household items, clothes, school materials and other campus resources at no charge. The program originated under UT sustainability manager Jay Price and aimed to prevent excessive waste while simultaneously providing a useful service for underprivileged students.
“What we find is that a lot of college students get just enough [money] to cover tuition, books and hopefully housing. That might not stretch any further,” Leah McCord, the Free Store Director, said.
The Free Store works alongside campus initiatives such as Smokey’s Closet and Smokey’s Pantry to provide students with food, clothes and other household items. Unlike the Smokey resources, the Free Store offers a more generalized selection of equipment.
“Pretty much anything that we can make a rational argument about a student needing, we’ll take,” McCord said. “Our goal is to take stuff that students don’t need anymore and give it to the people who need it. We are primarily dealing in clothes, but we do get donations from the community for random things.”
This generalized aid helps the Free Store reach a wider group of people, but less-privileged students might still be nervous about admitting their need, McCord explained.
“One of the big things that most need-based programs deal with is stigma. Part of that is having to go in and tell somebody that you need something. That’s a hard thing to do,” McCord said. “For a lot of services, people know you’re going there because you have need. People don’t necessarily want to be seen waiting in line.”
The Office of Sustainability relieves this stigma by focusing on waste aversion rather that need relief. This method turns what might be an “embarrassing” ordeal about student need into a positive celebration of environmental health.
“We talk about issues of need, but we really highlight waste aversion,” McCord said. “We want to make it fun so that people don’t feel bad about needing stuff.”
Every few months, the Office of Sustainability will set up shop near major campus pedestrian areas like Ped Walkway and HSS Plaza. They lay out coat racks, tables and item bins filled with numerous useful materials for any student.
According to Free Store manager Maryn Miles, a junior in anthropology, this pop-up method also relieves stigma by turning the store into a fun campus event.
“Since it’s a pop-up event on campus, it’s seen more as a campus event that students can come to, have fun at and grab whatever they need,” Miles said. “You’re not really asking for help.”
UT Sustainability announces free stores dates and locations via their Twitter account. No date’s been set for the next pop-up event, but McCord estimates it will occur no later than the last week of September.
If students wish to get involved with the free store in others ways, such as donating or volunteering, they can contact Leah McCord at firstname.lastname@example.org.