Above: Sharing Locker volunteers compile the non-food items clients ask for. 

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Clients turn out early at Westminster Unitarian Church on Kenyon Avenue the third Saturday of each month, looking for a few rolls of toilet paper, a pack of diapers, some pet food and friendly face or two. They find all of that at the Sharing Locker, where items not typically offered at food pantries or covered by food stamps are given away each month by a band of passionate volunteers.

The Sharing Locker started nearly nine years ago after organizer Nancy Reiser saw a similar operation at a church in Florida. It seemed to Reiser like a caring thing to do so she returned to Westminster with a plan to recreate the practice here.

Clients get coffee and some holiday music at the Dec. 15 Sharing Locker at Westminster Unitarian Church.

Today, the Sharing Locker operates with admirable precision. Clients are served one at a time, sitting with one of the 40 or so people who volunteer each month to fill out a check list of possible items. Once the list is completed, they wait for their name to be called. There’s always coffee available to make the wait more bearable. On Dec. 15, someone was playing holiday music on the piano too, lending a festive air.

There is no needs test to enroll at the Sharing Locker. Rather, if a person is willing to wait in line on a Saturday, the Sharing Locker folks figure he or she does indeed have a need.

For clients, it can be a huge help.

“I currently don’t have an income and I have a 3 year old. It helps me be autonomous,” said one Coventry woman.

Sylvia Wysor picks out a pet toy for a Sharing Locker client, a December family tradition.

“Sometimes when you’re single it’s tough to do things by yourself,” said a woman from West Warwick. “The money only goes so far.”

But it’s not just the clients who gain – it’s the volunteers too.

“We love it,” said Jan Searles. “That’s why we’re here.”

“I’ve been volunteering for a few years. It’s a hard thing to walk away from,” said Allen Mongeau.

In December, the Sharing Locker opens a room filled with donated gifts – each client can take one item. Upstairs, in addition to the toiletries, there’s a room where pet owners can pick up some dog or cat food (one ziploc bag per person). – they go through hundreds of pounds of pet food each month. While the Sharing Locker has to buy some of that food, Petco in Cranston donates food too.

Volunteers Tia and Jen Galt.

“It doesn’t go that far but it’s a help,” said one volunteer.

The Sharing Locker, a nonprofit organization, buys most of the toiletry items with money that’s donated and the occasional grant from companies like Centreville Bank (“a great partner,” said Reiser).  Target also sends over truckloads of donations.

One volunteer at the registration table Dec. 15 was Jen Galt, who credited her daughter, Tia, for getting her involved. In fact, Tia was also there that day, having insisted her mother pick her up from Roger Williams University in the midst of finals (she a freshman there) so she could help.

“I love volunteering,” Tia said.

Also at the registration that Saturday was Sue Ross, who’s been volunteering for the Sharing Locker since the beginning. For her, the reason was simple.

“You just don’t realize how other members of your community are suffering,” she said.

Find out more about the Sharing Locker and how to make a donation here.


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