Fort Gratiot St. Clair County store offers goods at no charge Donations pay rent


By Amy Biolchini

Times Herald (Port Huron)

FORT GRATIOT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- The story of the Blue Water United Methodist Free Store is nothing short of miraculous.

The store -- which offers everything free of charge to its customers -- is run by volunteers.

When the store opened in May after only a month of planning, organizers didn't know where they were going to find the money to pay the rent for the storefront in a shopping mall -- there were only hopes and prayers.

Seven months later, the store has moved to a bigger location in St. Clair County's Fort Gratiot Township and will celebrate with a grand opening Saturday with music and free lunch.

Racks of clothes, shoes, household items, furniture and small appliances fill the store. The rent is paid through church donations from 29 churches in the Blue Water District of the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Though the move was necessitated by the lack of space in the former store, organizers believe the new location will allow them to better serve the community as well.

"The number of people that were coming ... it was overwhelming at times," said the Rev. Robert Chapman, pastor of the Gratiot Park United Methodist Church in Port Huron.

In the future, free services from a dentist, optometrist and barber might be offered as well as a free food pantry.

Mel Scott of Marine City is chairman of the volunteer committee that helps to run the store. On days when he's not at his part-time job, he's in the store working on a new kitchen space for volunteers and a new prayer room. The long hours don't feel like work, he said.

"To see them leave, with smiles on their faces ... that's enough," Scott said.

Scott said he had to drop out of seminary to care for his young children and first wife until her death several years ago. The free store is his chance to finally minister, he said.

Volunteer Nancy Crittenden said she's seen many women come into the store who are fleeing a relationship because of domestic violence issues and have to start over with nothing.

Chapman, Scott and Crittenden all vouch for the small miracles that grace the store regularly: Many times, someone will come looking for an item such as a stove or washing machine in the morning -- and by the afternoon, a random donor will arrive at the store looking to drop off a spare appliance.

The store serves an average of 150 to 200 families a week.

"It's constant," Chapman said. "The most disheartening thing, lately, is the number of new people coming in."

Chapman, a former teacher, said he recognizes some of the people coming in as former students from 10 to 25 years ago.

"It's wonderful that we have a place that they can go," he said.

Each person is allowed 20 items of clothing and several household appliances per month, which the store keeps track of in an informal file.

"We get so busy with our own lives, and our families, we really don't see this going on until something like this happens," Chapman said. "There's definitely a need in St. Clair County."

Published: Thu, Nov 17, 2011