Price is right for needy at Concord's free store

By Rj Walters

Jackson Citizen-Patriot

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 4 2011 7:53 p.m. MST

Kelli Koch, of Concord, browses through racks of clothing Friday afternoon at the Concord Open Door Free Store. Staffed by volunteers and filled with donations, the store is open six days a week and offers shoppers access to an unlimited number of free items. Koch was looking for Christmas gifts for her eldest daughter.

Jackson Citizen Patriot, Katie Rausch, Associated Press

CONCORD, Mich. — The looks on customers' faces tell the story of the new Open Door Free Store in Concord more appropriately than any words can.

When customers find out the new and like-new clothes, toys, furniture and appliances are free — with no maximum or requirements — there is plenty of shock.

That is precisely what Concord United Methodist Church's pastor, the Rev. Melany Chalker, was envisioning.

The Free Store celebrated its grand Dec. 3, complete with a blessing of the store by local church leaders. Dozens of people sang Christmas carols, nibbled on doughnuts and shared in the spirit of giving in the freshly painted and renovated boutique.

Twenty-three shoppers took home more than 220 items, including a full dining room set with fine china and a couch that appeared new.

Chalker said the goal of the store is to make customers feel valued and loved like never before.

"It's all about audacious generosity. I've had people say, 'You're going to give (people) a number on items, right? They can't just have anything,'" Chalker said. "It's audacious generosity. Yes, they can."

Chalker said she believes the store has unlimited potential, and community members have given generously to help it along.

The building owner is renting the store to the church for just $295 — around 60 percent of its rental value — because he was excited by the church's intentions.

More than 40 individuals have volunteered or signed up to help, as the store plans on being open several hours a day, six days a week to start. Girl Scouts earned a "retail badge" for helping set up the storefront for its grand opening.

On the Tuesday after the grand opening, Concord firefighters stepped forward to show support.

"They walked in the door with a $100 check and smiles on their faces and we were like, 'Wow, that's pretty gracious,' and they said, 'Well, this isn't all of it. We'll be doing the same thing for the next six months,'" Chalker said.

The store has also started a partnership with the Community Action Agency to help people apply for housing-related grants. Chalker is hopeful of future collaboration with Allegiance Health for basic medical support and of becoming a distribution spot for the North Parma United Methodist Church food pantry.

Churches of several denominations, including Catholic, Presbyterian and Free Methodist, have also joined forces. Unbeknownst to Chalker, Hanover-Horton Community Church even conducted a clothing drive for the store.

"They did a coat drive and brought over 40 coats, most of them brand new, and two boxes of children's boots and two boxes of brand-new, and some handmade, hats, mittens and scarves," she said. The Rev. Bob Wyatt and his wife Mary "knew about the ministry from prayer meetings we've been a part of together, and it's just awesome."

The Free Store will need a steady diet of people like the Wyatts to sustain itself. People can be a formal "friend of the store" by pledging $10 a week, and there is an ongoing need for donations and for volunteers.

Chalker said the store can accept smaller donations anytime, but people interested in donating larger items such as furniture should call her church to make sure floor space or storage space is available.

It took months and a crazy personal schedule for Chalker to help accomplish her dream, but she recently took a couple of moments to appreciate the final product.

"I went back to the desk to take a picture of all these people coming in, which was like this wave," Chalker said. "So, I got up on the desk and took this picture and now I think, that's what it had to look like to God. People pouring in and looking at something in every single aisle."

Information from: Jackson Citizen Patriot, http://www.mlive.com/jackson

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