As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to deepen the financial strain many college students face, the Case Western Reserve student body will soon have a new resource available to help ease the burden. On Sept. 19, the Physical Resource Center—also known as the “freestore”—will open its doors in Uptown at 11440 Uptown Ave.

Run entirely by student volunteers, the center aims to connect students with items they may need, such as small pieces of furniture, clothing, school supplies and more. Students in need will be able to sign up for time slots to visit the center and take the items they’d like for free.

The center is an initiative of the Undergraduate Student Government, Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative, Student Activities & Leadership, the Office for Energy and Sustainability and the Office of Real Estate, and their partnerships across the university that brought the idea to fruition. 

Its roots, however, come from the ResCycle program, hosted annually by the Office of Energy & Sustainability. Each year, students are encouraged to donate any unwanted belongings, yielding 7 to 9 tons of items ranging from outerwear to household supplies. Items have historically been donated to a nonprofit organization, but students realized they could have an extended lifecycle on campus and benefit peers facing financial strain.

The success of the Student Emergency Fund and Student Activities Fee COVID-19 Emergency Fund earlier this year demonstrated to students how COVID-19 may continue driving financial hardship.

“[The freestore] was intended to alleviate financial burdens. I think with COVID, a lot more students are financially impacted, so it definitely accelerated the need for the resource,” said Sharan Mehta, a junior computer science major and chair of the center’s steering committee. Mehta along with his co-chair Olivia Paxson, a senior civil engineering major, partnered with campus units, including the Center for Civic Engagement and Scholarship, to train volunteers on hospitality and confidentiality. Hunter Stecko, president of Undergraduate Student Government, helped them establish a budget for the center.

Early on, the student organizers were able to secure the center’s Uptown location by connecting with Kevin Slesh, the university’s director of real estate, who had an 18-month availability on the 1,300-square-foot space he wasn’t expecting to fill. Slesh offered the space rent-free, allowing the students to establish a budget that will carry them through those 18 months, including funding for utilities, personal protective equipment for volunteers, cleaning supplies and more.

Due to safety protocols, there will be a strict capacity limit at the center that will be enforced via a sign-up process. Students can sign up for a time slot to visit the center through CampusGroups.

To maintain inventory throughout the year, the center will host donation drives, focusing specifically on items that are of greatest need. 

With sustainability being a key component of the freestore, items that are unused at the center will be redirected to organizations that can. So far, they have been able to give excess sheets to CWRU Emergency Medical Services, pillows and socks to a men’s homeless shelter, and electronic waste (lamps, computer hardware and more) to a local nonprofit called RET3. Next, they hope to work with a women’s shelter by donating extra garments.

Mehta and Paxson plan to regularly evaluate the center’s success and hope to enter phase two in early October. They specifically would like to add a food pantry as a cornerstone of the center’s offerings and are working with both the Church of the Covenant and the food insecurity task force to set this up. In the future, they would like to explore the possibility of expanding the center to also serve faculty and staff, and potentially even members of the nearby community.

While Mehta said getting the center off the ground has been tough at times, it also has been rewarding.

“Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve heard positive feedback—from administration, faculty and students—which has been really encouraging in keeping us motivated to make this happen.”