On an icy Saturday morning in February, shoppers were lined up before the doors opened at Auntie Yvonne's Community Free Store
, 1515 S. Harris Rd. in Ypsilanti Township, inside the St. Mark Lutheran Church building.
Once they were allowed in, they were greeted warmly by founder Shonne Draw, wearing a face mask and a pink cap while playing inspirational tunes on her cell phone. Draw told newcomers no I.D. was required and there was no limit on how long they shopped or how many times they came back.
"It's so beautiful," said Shelley Coleman, a regular at the store who has experienced homelessness. "My family and I wouldn't have survived without it."
Zawadi and Shonne Draw at Auntie Yvonne's Community Free Store.
Half an hour after opening, nearly a dozen shoppers circled the free store with garbage bags or boxes in hand, sifting through carefully arranged displays of clothing, shoes, handbags, kitchenware, books, and more. Draw's husband Zawadi, a minister, prayed for a "supernaturally blessed" day for all visitors at the shop's opening, and was available to meet with shoppers in the church's sanctuary if they wanted prayer. As shoppers left, they were offered a small bag containing KN95 face masks and at-home COVID-19 testing kits.
"You never know what you'll find at Auntie Yvonne's House," Draw says.
From pain comes purpose
Draw says the store is indeed named after her Aunt Yvonne, who she describes as a "giving spirit."
"You couldn't leave her house without her giving you something," Draw says.
The organization is run like a thrift shop, but all items are free. Draw originally stocked the store with items from her own house and her aunt's, but the store has begun to receive many donations now.
Draw runs the store under the banner of her No More Violence nonprofit, established several years ago.
"I had it for years but didn't really put my heart into it until my son Trey was killed," she says, referring to the 2020 shooting
in Ypsilanti Township's Nancy Park that inspired the #hisnameistrey hashtag on social media. "Then it became personal."
She says her relationship with St. Mark's Lutheran Church started when she first moved to Ypsilanti Township and her children attended a Halloween event there.
Bunny Arbaugh processes donations at Auntie Yvonne's Community Free Store.
"I came here, me and my husband and our four children at that time, with a one-way bus ticket and $20, from Detroit," she says. "They invited us in, and our hearts have been here with them since 2009."
Many years later, when Trey was killed, the church members made a touching memorial for him.
"St. Mark planted a tree for him, and the whole community came out and just loved on me and my family," she says. "I wanted to figure out a positive way to turn my pain into purpose and give back to such a great community."
While running a free store may seem unrelated to a nonprofit with a mission of addressing violence, Draw says her store provides a peaceful haven for shoppers and meets some basic needs so that money saved can go toward bills or other pressing needs.
"My hope is to be active within the community, spread God's love, and maybe erase some of the violence," she says. "Shoppers can come to the store and don't have to deal with their hurts and pains, and when they go home, it's like Christmas when they're unpacking."
"God has blessed us to upgrade"
Draw began the store in June 2021 as a humble weekly pop-up shop. It's since moved indoors into the fellowship hall and expanded to three days a week: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.
"We started in the parking lot with seven tables, but God has blessed us to upgrade," Draw says.
She says people can come back and shop as often as they like, and she doesn't worry about people abusing her charity.
"Normally, they take what they need," she says.
A young shopper at Auntie Yvonne's Community Free Store.
Friend and free store volunteer Bunny Arbaugh relates a story about a shopper who was living out of her car.
"She said, 'These flip-flops will make great shower shoes,' and she took two. But then she came back and left one pair and said someone else might need it," Arbaugh says.
Arbaugh says those who donate to the store also benefit from a feeling of purpose.
"A lady the other day dropped off stuff and looked at me with tears in her eyes," Arbaugh says. "She says, 'My mom passed away in October and I'm giving you her stuff.' And then she hugged me. People are very generous in giving, and grateful that we're giving it away."
Transition and uncertainty
Arbaugh was a long-time member of St. Mark's, but says the church is in transition and its building is up for sale.
"I'm hoping that whoever takes it on will allow us to stay, but we're also praying for a building and a bigger space," Draw says.
In late February, Draw had to pause donations until the church building's fate is decided. But as an official 501(c)(3), she can take cash donations. The charity uses those donations for toilet paper, toothbrushes, toiletries, and other new items.
Auntie Yvonne's Community Free Store.
"Our top priority is to make our portion of the world a little better and see people smile," Draw says. "We don't know their income or lifestyle, but when they come in, they're family. All are welcome here. When you walk into God's house, you feel the peace. There is love here."
More information about the community free store is available on the organization's Facebook page
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.