Crossing Austin Boulevard: This story is part of an ongoing series of articles that Austin Weekly News publishes about issues, events, people, places and things that take place west of Austin Boulevard, but that nonetheless resonate to the east of it, as well.
It all started with an old teddy bear.
“My daughter had this teddy bear she had been holding onto forever and one day she said she didn’t want it anymore, but I didn’t want to just throw it away,” said Oak Park physician Connie Moreland, who resolved the dilemma after visiting her 26-year-old daughter’s apartment in Chicago’s Uptown community.
“I went to visit her and she had all these little things in her apartment and I asked her where they came from. She said, ‘I got them from my free group,’” Moreland said. “I started thinking about it and asked her why we didn’t have one of those in Oak Park. I mentioned it to her and she said, ‘You ought to start one.’”
Moreland did just that, creating the private Facebook group, “Free To Good Home,” in November 2019 — right before the start of the COVID pandemic. The group has since grown to roughly 4,600 members in Oak Park, other west suburbs and Chicago’s West Side.
Members can join by invitation or by contacting Moreland and her co-administrator, Antoinette Ivy. The rules are simple: Be kind and courteous, respect everyone’s privacy, no hate speech or bullying, and absolutely no buying or selling of any kind.
Another, less explicit rule is that anything posted can’t be means tested. If it’s free, it’s free. No strings attached.
“Our mission basically is to break down barriers, to connect with one another, to interrupt isolation, to make friends and to extend goodwill across the socioeconomic barriers that we have,” Moreland said.
“Somebody well-off might need something too,” she said. “We don’t care. You want it, then it’s yours. We intentionally try to exclude that kind of stuff from it. If someone is posting something to say, ‘I want this to go to a needy family,’ we will edit that out and say, ‘Just put it up here. Stop that.’”
Some of the group’s recent offerings include a Rubbermaid container top, Canon inkjet cartridges, a cedar chest, teaching books, and candles (the latter gifted by Moreland herself).
“The purpose of the group is to recycle and repurpose,” Ivy said. “We want to be good to the earth. It’s also a group that values positive community engagement. To me, that stands out about the group. Particularly during the pandemic, it’s been a way to feel connected when a lot of people were feeling isolated or hesitant, especially in the beginning, to go to stores.”
Evelyn Alvarado, who lives in Austin’s Galewood neighborhood, said she’s picked up a few furniture pieces through the Facebook group.
“Nowadays, most furniture isn’t wood and the furniture that is real wood is super expensive,” Alvarado said. “This way, I don’t have to buy real wood furniture. I just pick the items up through Free to Good Home and transform them into more modern pieces.”
Janet Lorch, who lives in Oak Park, said she’s “given away literally hundreds of things” on the Facebook group, which she said is much more than a free online bazaar.
“When you’ve got something your daughter played with and will never play with again, but doesn’t want to hold onto, the sense that it will go to another family who will really enjoy it makes me feel really connected to the community,” Lorch said. “I’ve had people send photos they’ve taken showing me how something was used.”
Moreland’s vision for the group goes beyond the confines of cyberspace, describing the popular Facebook group she created as a means to building very material bonds.
Last month, she organized a free flea market in Rehm Park, which she hopes to organize again next year. Moreland said she wants to start “a whole free movement” in Oak Park and surrounding suburbs.
“I have a motto,” she said. “Everything we need, we already have. In our community, we don’t have to buy anything. … It’s amazing to see how people just give like this.”