By JANE BECKERDITE
Nothing is for sale and everything is free. These are the basic rules of the Facebook group “Free Stuff Texarkana” and its processing location, “The Warehouse,” whose mission is to simply pay it forward.
The Facebook group has 13,000-plus members who reside in the Texarkana region. Some members ask for items they need and others answer the request by giving the items away. It’s truly that simple. Money is never allowed to exchange hands, much less be brought up in conversation. In fact, discussing money at all can get a person removed from the group.
Mary Ann Bidwell called the Facebook group “wonderful” and said she could not recall a time when someone was not willing to help another person out.
“I have seen people drive from other towns to Texarkana just to help me with dog food. I know my dogs are blessed, and God bless the people who have always been there like Kathy Zwirnmann, and Shelby Roos, and all the others,” she said.
Bidwell added that there have been times in which people in the group have been “helpless and in need of food” and sought out assistance from the “Free Stuff Texarkana” group.
“There is no appointment needed to ask for help, where as many other organizations make you get an appointment. And sometimes, it takes a week or more to be seen there.”
Kathy Zwirnmann oversee the entire operation, including the Warehouse, which is essentially a holding place for the items people request and serves as a facility for people to drop off and pick up items for random donations. Zwirnmann has her reasons for undertaking such an overwhelming task.
“After going through two years of Stage 4 cancer, I was given six months to two years. God saw fit to completely cure me. I felt it was my time to pay it forward,” she said.
“I have three sons and three foster children. A total of 15 grandchildren – some are step, foster, and my own. I am raising two of my grandsons right now. I’ve been married 25 years to a wonderful man. I also manage a hunting ranch in New Boston. But, I found myself with some free time so I joined the “Free Stuff Texarkana” group in 2012,” she said.
Having worked for the Larkotex Company for 30 years, the business ultimately closed when its owner died, and it wasn’t long before Zwirnmann found herself needing something to do. Believe it or not.
It all began when the original administrator needed an assistant and Zwirnmann was eager to accept the job. “I saw many people in need of (donated) items, but they did not have a way to pick them up. I would pick up items from the giver and take them to the receiver. Soon, I agreed to meet at Kmart and Walmart two times a week and distribute the items that were requested. Once other people learned where I would be, they would meet and give me donations.”
It wasn’t long before those donated items began overtaking the Zwirnmann household – and those of her friends’ homes, too.
“I outgrew my Tahoe and started storing items in my friends’ garages and extra bedrooms,” she said. “My house was full and I started filling up my husband’s new camper when he said I had to find somewhere else to put it all. So, I pleaded on the Facebook group page for a donated building. And the request was answered!”
Located at 303 S. Lake Drive in Texarkana, Texas, the Warehouse is open from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Warehouse originally opened its doors in October 2012. At first, only a small portion of the building was donated with all expenses paid. But soon, even that space wasn’t enough to hold all the items being donated by generous Texarkana area residents.
“I quickly expanded, and after a year I offered to pay rent to retain a larger portion of the building – and to pay for the utilities and supplies. The operating costs are approximately $500 to $600 a month,” Zwirnmann said.
To offset the monthly costs, the Facebook “Warehouse Utilities Auction Page” soon came to life and it is run by another volunteer, Shelby Roos. Roos not only runs that site, but also works at the Warehouse almost daily. She said she volunteers because it’s simply the right thing to do.
“It’s difficult to express why I help out,” she noted, tears forming in her eyes. “It’s because of her,” she said, nodding toward Zwirnmann. “She helped me when I needed help and that’s what this place is all about. People often live paycheck to paycheck and we’re here to help them – no questions asked,” Roos said.
The Warehouse helps about 50 to 75 people a day. People drive up outside and request a specific need, which can be anything from a pair of size 12 blue jeans to a kitchen table and chairs. If the Warehouse has it, that person gets it. No questions asked. No identification requested. No hoops to jump through.
And, the Warehouse is exactly what its name implies and, as such, has no air conditioning and no heating. In the winter, Zwirnmann and her volunteers use electric heaters and a propane blow heater just to keep warm.
“We layer the clothes on and hope the wind does not blow too hard. If the temperature is under freezing, I will close for the day,” she said. “During the summer we use fans and hope for the wind to blow. We have volunteers who cannot work in the extreme conditions due to health issues.”
When Zwirnmann joined Facebook’s “Free Stuff Texarkana” there were about 400 members in the group. After she began picking up and delivering items it quickly doubled its membership. When she opened the Warehouse in 2012, the group’s numbers grew by 50 to 100 people a day. She said she can’t believe the numbers today are more than 13,000.
“I never expected the Facebook group or the Warehouse to grow so large. Local agencies now send people to us for assistance. We do not ask to see driver’s licenses or put people on a waiting list. If we have it, we give it! I personally feel that if it is not of God, it will not stand,” Zwirnmann said.
The Facebook group, “Free Stuff Texarkana” works much like the Warehouse, except that its requests are immediately seen online and sometimes granted very quickly thanks to the Internet.
When a person requests an item that’s needed, like toddler clothes for example, if another person has some she will comment on that post telling the receiver where to pick them up. Both parties can meet at a public place, or the giver can drop the clothes off at the Warehouse with the receiver’s name on them.
“We allow people to drop off items for other people (at the Warehouse) and we hold it for one week. This makes it convenient for the receiver to come and pick up at their convenience. If we have the item they are requesting, we send them a notice and ask them to come to the Warehouse and pick up. After one week, if the items are not picked up, it returns to our stock for the next person,” Zwirnmann explained.
But some people on “Free Stuff Texarkana” have such desperate needs, like food for their babies, that even the Warehouse cannot immediately address these issues, especially if it’s past closing time. That’s where the 13,000-plus group members come in handy. It’s not uncommon to witness compassion, almost within minutes, literally being delivered to a complete stranger. Although it’s difficult to imagine a family dynamic taking place among 13,000 people, seeing such kindheartedness among such a large group of people is not infrequent.
It’s simply a great way to help others who need help, said group member Balinda Williamson.
“So many programs out there have too much red tape. When someone is to the point of asking for help, they usually have waited to the point of absolute desolation. To me, this site is helping where the helping is needed, and I am thankful to be a part of the group,” Williamson said.
Many of the group members are working families just trying to make ends meet. Jose Pool, a father of three, is a prime example.
“We were living in a camper for two years. Finally, I got into a house and had nothing but clothes and a TV. Kathy (Zwirnmann) went above and beyond to help my family get what we needed to make our empty house a home,” he said.
Zwirnmann said she’s been told, “You can’t save them all.” But that’s not what she’s trying to do. Her real goal is to help the working poor because they are the ones who seem to fall between the cracks, she noted.
“It is the ones who work and can’t go to the food pantries or shelters that my heart goes out to. I always get sad when I see those who are truly in need. The families who work so hard but just can’t get ahead. The families who do not qualify for food stamps or for Medicaid assistance. The ones who work to provide for their families but just do not make enough to supply all of their needs, but make more than the government allows for assistance,” she said. “That makes me sad.”
Fran Baribeau is a member of “Free Stuff Texarkana” and said the entire experience has changed her.
“Because of the Warehouse, its heart-of-gold administers and the awesome members of this group, I have become a much better person,” she said.
Sandy Routier said she has been on both ends of the spectrum in regard to the Warehouse and “Free Stuff Texarkana.
“I have both donated and received. These are a great group of people. I admire the work they are doing and really wish there was more I could do. But I help when I can. My dream, if I ever win the lottery, is to help Kathy Zwirnmann in tremendous ways,” she said.
Jessica Stout said because of the Warehouse she is truly able to help the community without it requiring money.
“This ministry has showed me that at the end of the day there are still angels. And miracles do happen. Just have to keep your faith. I am grateful that I can give back without it having a price tag on it. I am grateful for this ministry and for Kathy (Zwirnmann), and the ladies who make it all happen!” Stout said.
Zwirnmann said she hopes the Warehouse continues to grow and donations continue to pour in so that even more people in Texarkana continue to receive help.
“Times are not getting any easier. We are there to take some of the stress off of those who need that little extra help.”