HUMBOLDT PARK — A free store launched last year to help neighbors stock up on necessities is still going strong, selling out frequently as residents stock up amid the ongoing pandemic.
A group of restaurant and bar workers in the Humboldt Park area launched the People Over Profit Free Store last spring inside a former driving school at 2712 W. Division St. Hospitality workers, struggling during the pandemic, came up with the idea as they pondered a project to mutual aid to help neighbors make ends meet, organizer Kristina Magro mentioned.
“It’s easy to donate a dollar for every drink, but how do you go beyond that and how do you actually engage with community members?” said Magro, director of beverages for The Orbit Group.
Supported by donations, people can come pick up clothes, food, books, household items and other essentials.
“I love it. It’s very nice. It’s good for the neighborhood,” longtime Humboldt Park resident Dorothy Jones said during a recent shopping spree. “People need things and they don’t have to go get them, they’re right here.
The free store is a joint effort between Magro and the other hospitality professionals who run Support staffa non-profit organization dedicated to breaking down mental health barriers in the hospitality industry, and Claire Lyerla, bartender at The Continental.
Shortly after joining forces, hospitality workers decided to open a community center and free store in Humboldt Park to “ease some of the stresses that affect people on a daily basis and their mental health,” said Magro.
“We all lost our jobs as a collective group of people in the hospitality industry. … The moment this happened, we sounded the alarm and thought, how can we help? How can we help? “We raise funds? How can we do something? Magro said.
Thanks to a donor, the band members signed a two-year lease on the vacant Division Street storefront. They got to work repairing the space, putting up drywall and giving the walls new coats of paint, then used their connections with the hospitality industry to fill it with donated items, clothes and shoes at food and personal hygiene products.
“There was a lot of work to do in the space, and we’re just a bunch of bartenders and chefs,” Magro said. “So you can definitely say we’re not professionals, but we did our best with the skills we have.”
When the store opened last summer, neighbors were confused, unsure if they could just take the items, Magro and Lyerla said. But the project took off through social media and word of mouth, especially as Lyerla began to build relationships with people while she was working in the shop.
Now people are lining up to get in on weekends, Lyerla said.
“This experience — even more than I thought — really reflects my experience as a dive bartender, where people become a bit like family,” Lyerla said. “They will share their personal stories, their struggles and their daily lives. I’ve had more than one person cry on my shoulder for things that are perhaps directly or indirectly related to what’s going on in the world right now.
On a recent afternoon, several people came to shop, including neighbors Vera Neskoroscheny and her 20-year-old daughter, Mia Neskoroscheny.
Mia Neskoroscheny said they struggled to pay bills and other expenses, so they became regulars at the store, buying clothes, food and books they otherwise couldn’t afford.
“Food is especially useful because we have financial difficulties. We don’t eat too well, so it’s nice to be able to eat full meals,” Mia Neskoroscheny said.
That’s exactly why the free People Over Profit store exists: to connect neighbors in need to necessities, Magro said.
“We really wanted this to create some sort of relief for people who are still suffering from the outcome of the pandemic,” she said. “The world has opened up a bit and I think people have been really trying to get back to ‘normal’ and we really haven’t considered that there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have the necessities. basic.”
The People Over Profit project also serves as a headquarters for support staff. Magro said the team plans to build a podcast studio and therapy room for the nonprofit, hoping to hold therapy sessions once a month.
The group also uses the store for community building events led by support staff. Last month, hospitality workers held a sandwich-making event; during the holidays, they organized a meeting centered on the writing of greeting cards to the incarcerated people.
Magro said they hope to partner with more food rescue programs to keep their fridges stocked with fresh produce and other groceries. The group is always looking for more donations, especially food and hygiene items, Lyerla said.
Store hours may vary, but it is always open 3-8 p.m. Wednesday and 1-6 p.m. Saturday. Outside resources like the community refrigerator, lockers, and pet supplies can be donated 24/7, but things like clothing and items stored inside can only be donated when the store is open, organizers said.
“We’re just going to keep pushing, keep growing, keep listening to what people need and keep trying to make it happen,” Magro said.
At its core, the project is about taking the “things we take for granted on a day-to-day basis and giving them to the people who need them,” and that will remain the mission until the end of the lease, Magro said.
“Because, in my humble opinion, hospitality doesn’t stop within your four walls within your establishment,” Magro said. “Hospitality should continue in the community. As hospitality professionals, we should really look around, listen to our community and recognize the things they need.
For more information on the People Over Profit store and events, visit the project page Instagram.
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