On a cold Saturday morning in February shoppers sat in line before the doors were opened. Auntie Yvonne’s Free Community Store, 1515 S. Harris Rd. Ypsilanti Township. Inside the St. Mark Lutheran Church building.
Shonne Draw, founder of the company, greeted them with a warm welcome. She was wearing a pink cap and a mask on her face while she played inspirational tunes on her cellphone. Draw informed newcomers that they did not need an I.D. No I.D. was required. They could shop for as long as they wanted and they could come back as many times as they wanted.
“It’s so beautiful,”Shelley Coleman is a regular customer who has experienced homelessness. “My family and I wouldn’t have survived without it.”
Zawadi & Shonne Draw at Auntie Yvonne’s Community Free Store.
Nearly a dozen people walked around the store, carrying garbage bags or boxes, for nearly an hour. They sifted through carefully arranged displays, including clothing, shoes and handbags, as well as kitchenware, books and other items. Draw’s husband Zawadi is a minister. He prayed for a “supernaturally blessed”day for all shop visitors at the shop’s open, and was available to pray with shoppers in the church sanctuary if they needed it. Shoppers were given a small bag with KN95 face masks as well as COVID-19 testing kits at home.
“You never know what you’ll find at Auntie Yvonne’s House,” Draw says.
Pain is the beginning of purpose
Draw claims that the store is named after her Aunt Yvonne. She describes her as a “sister.” “giving spirit.”
“You couldn’t leave her house without her giving you something,” Draw says.
Although the organization is run as a thrift shop, all items are donated. Draw originally stocked her store with items from her aunt’s and her own home, but now the store receives many donations.
Draw manages the store under the banners of her No More Violence nonprofit, which she founded several years ago.
“I had it for years but didn’t really put my heart into it until my son Trey was killed,”She says this in reference to the 2020 shootingNancy Park in Ypsilanti Township was the inspiration for the #hisnameistrey social media hashtag. “Then it became personal.”
She claims that her relationship with St. Mark’s Lutheran Church began when she moved to Ypsilanti Township. Her children attended a Halloween party there.
Bunny Arbaugh accepts donations at Auntie Yvonne’s Community Free Store.
“I came here, me and my husband and our four children at that time, with a one-way bus ticket and $20, from Detroit,”She said. “They invited us in, and our hearts have been here with them since 2009.”
Trey was murdered many years later and the church members created a touching tribute for him.
“St. Mark planted a tree for him, and the whole community came out and just loved on me and my family,”She said. “I wanted to figure out a positive way to turn my pain into purpose and give back to such a great community.”
Draw claims that even though a free store may seem unrelated in relation to a non-profit with a mission to address violence, her store provides a peaceful haven and meets basic needs. Money saved can then be used to pay bills or other pressing expenses.
“My hope is to be active within the community, spread God’s love, and maybe erase some of the violence,”She said. “Shoppers can come to the store and don’t have to deal with their hurts and pains, and when they go home, it’s like Christmas when they’re unpacking.”
“God has blessed us to upgrade”
The store was started by Draw in June 2021 as a weekly pop-up shop. It moved indoors into the fellowship room and has expanded to three days per week: 10 a.m.-4 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and 10 AM-2 PM Saturdays.
“We started in the parking lot with seven tables, but God has blessed us to upgrade,” Draw says.
She says that people can return to her shop as often as they wish, and she doesn’t worry if people abuse her charity.
“Normally, they take what they need,”She said.
Auntie Yvonne’s community free store: A young shopper.
Bunny Arbaugh, a friend and volunteer at the free store, tells a story about a shopper living in her car.
“She said, ‘These flip-flops will make great shower shoes,’ and she took two. But then she came back and left one pair and said someone else might need it,”Arbaugh said.
Arbaugh said that those who donate to the store also benefit by a sense of purpose.
“A lady the other day dropped off stuff and looked at me with tears in her eyes,”Arbaugh said. “She says, ‘My mom passed away in October and I’m giving you her stuff.’ And then she hugged me. People are very generous in giving, and grateful that we’re giving it away.”
Transition and uncertainty
Arbaugh was a long-time St. Mark’s member, but he says that the church is in transition now and that its building is for sale.
“I’m hoping that whoever takes it on will allow us to stay, but we’re also praying for a building and a bigger space,” Draw says.
Draw had to suspend donations in February until the fate of the church building was decided. Draw is an official 501(c),(3) and can accept cash donations. The charity uses the donations to buy toilet paper, toothbrushes or toiletries, as well as other items.
Auntie Yvonne’s Free Community Store.
“Our top priority is to make our portion of the world a little better and see people smile,” Draw says. “We don’t know their income or lifestyle, but when they come in, they’re family. All are welcome here. When you walk into God’s house, you feel the peace. There is love here.”
More information about the community-free store can be found on the organization’s website. Facebook page.
Sarah Rigg, a freelance writer and editor from Ypsilanti Township, is the project manager for Ground Ypsilanti. She joined ConcentrateIn 2017, he was a news reporter and occasionally contributes to other publications. Issue Media Group publications. You can reach her at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe.