Free Store celebrates 15 years of service

Student life

By Jon Rausseo

Sustainability Expert, Office of Sustainability

Large group of people shopping at the Free Store
The summer of 2008, a small group of three volunteers helped collect items left behind by students as they moved out of uOttawa residences at the end of the academic year. Over the summer, the Office of Campus Sustainability helped organize and clean all the donations so that they could be given, for free, to the students. And so, the Free Store was born.

Now the Free Store is celebrating 15 years of success and looking forward to an even brighter future.
Free Store inside UCU
The Free Store moves from place to place inside the UCU – 2011

It’s easy to understand why the Free Store became so popular over the years. It gave students the opportunity to furnish their space, find some of their course books, or even pick up some Halloween costumes for free. Donors finally have a place to give away their unused clothes and knick-knacks. And for the University, reusing and recyclying was now becoming an easy way to make people happy.

In 2012, the Free Store was moved out of the UCU and into its first real location: an old house on 647 King Edward. This was big! Things could stay out on shelves and racks and volunteers could focus on cleaning and sorting instead. Once transformed, it hosted hundreds of visitors weekly in search of dishes, posters, and ice skates.

The store received media coverage on multiple occasions. CBC, RDI, TVO… word had spread about this amazing space. Unlike thrift stores, the Free Store wasn’t there to make a profit, it was there to reduce waste going to landfill.

RDI comes to the Free Store and covers a story on the return to campus
RDI comes to the Free Store and covers a story on the return to campus

The Free Store has also been a place to learn. Some volunteers came to work on assignments and fulfill community service-learning hours. And a lot of students came to volunteer so that they could meet new people and live their values.

By 2015, there were over 50 people who volunteered to help keep the store running. uOttawa’s Free Store has inspired the creation of at least a dozen other Free Stores around the world, mostly by exchange students who brought this little piece of uOttawa home with them.

Coordinators and volunteers make handprints on the wall of the store
A long standing tradition of the Free Store, coordinators and volunteers would leave their handprints on the wall of the store - 2018

In 2018, the Free Store moved once again but this time on campus. This new space was wheelchair accessible and had large store-front windows. And thanks to some generous donations, the Free Store was able to get more racks, shelves, and hangers.

Building front on campus showing a sign for the Free Store in the window
The Free Store comes to campus – 2018

As the space evolved, the Free Store took on more partnerships both on and off campus. Administration students analyzed the social return on investment, engineering students created prototype racks, and arts students designed a communications plan for the store. More Faculties and Services started to send their surplus directly to the Free Store to distribute, and the International Office forged a partnership to get more visiting students into the store. In 2019, uOttawa alumni were also invited to use the service.

Shelters and drop-in centres around the city used the Free Store. Community members who experienced house fires, people stuck in the hospital for extended stays, or travelers who had lost their luggage all benefitted from the store. Most recently, the Free Store established a relationship with Immigration, Citizenship, and Refugee Canada to get these items in the hands of newly arrived Canadians and refugees.

So here we are 15 years later, there are still plans to expand into more spaces.