Shelba Childers of Ashley first heard of Common Ground Free Store Ministries three months after it opened in September 2006.
She fell in love with volunteering for the organization at 193 E. Central Ave. in Delaware, especially making warm meals in the kitchen for those in need.
“I’ve been volunteering here ever since,” she said.
Childers gained a reputation that lives up to the sign’s message of “Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends” hanging above the entrance way of the free store’s dining room.
“I became known as the lady who gives hugs,” she said.
Childers said she remembered a woman that visited the free store years ago asking for a hug from the volunteer who dishes them out. Childers obliged and the woman left, never to be seen or heard from again.
“We have some good times in here,” Childers said.
During the free store’s first Christmas season, Childers recalled when a single mother brought her toddler daughter to the store. The mother’s head hang low when her daughter pointed out the festive holiday tree on display in the store lobby, while talking about how Santa Claus brings gifts to everyone, she said.
Childers worked with management to provide a nicer tree, decorations and toys on the spot.
The mother “left that day… smiling, laughing,” she said.
It’s one of thousands of stories of how the free store has helped Delaware’s neediest families, according to Sharon Griner, executive director of the free store.
The faith-based nonprofit was started by William Street United Methodist Church along with 24 other churches, she said.
Patrons of the store visit from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. They check in and out using their IDs to receive a supply of clothes, household and meals for free with limits on a monthly basis.
“I’ve been here since they opened up,” said Diane Croy, 75, who lives nearby. “If you need food and stuff they’ll help you out.”
Croy comes to the store for the meals and sometimes finds clothes for herself and her boyfriend’s three grandchildren.
“The food is good,” she said. “(And) some of the things is brand new.”
During those hours volunteers come out to make the meals, help customers and sort through the donations received. The system has helped more than 4,200 families over the past decade, serving about 16,000 meals a year.
“I think we have carved a name for ourselves in the community,” Griner said.
The organization receives funding from individuals, churches and several organizations including United Way of Delaware; Delaware County Foundation and SourcePoint.
The free store opens for business with prayer, inviting visitors to participate. Assistant manager Kara Jones also serves as a community pastor, ready and available to hear visitors’ talk about their latest challenges in life.
While Christianity plays an important role in the background, the free store’s objective is to be an uncommon place for common needs, Childers said.
“We’re all just like family,” she said. “It’s like a melting pot… we all come together.”
And Childers doesn’t see herself quitting the store anytime soon.
“Until Sharon kicks me out,” she said jokingly.
“And there’s no chance of that happening,” Griner said.
The free store has 1,200 volunteers in the system, she said, but is always in need.
Space is another issue. The 1,786-square-foot store had to stop accepting donations early Wednesday because its sorting room was full. The nonprofit plans to expand or relocate in three years with the intention to stay on the east side.
“That’s the vision,” Griner said.
Brandon Klein can be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter at @brandoneklein.