Just before 10 p.m. on a frigid January night in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the wind whipped through the trees as residents started to feel their lips turn blue. The temperature had dropped below zero degrees, and Helen McCombs’ fingers started to crackle as she braced for an unbearable winter night.
As she looked down at her phone, she saw a text from the newly sworn-in second lady of Pennsylvania, Gisele Fetterman.
“Is the house warm enough?” she asked.
When McCombs responded, her living room was below zero degrees. Fetterman and her husband immediately made their way to McCombs’ house to deliver a portable heater for the living room.
Fetterman was introduced to McCombs when she founded the Free Store 15104, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainability, and has dedicated her life to helping others.
Growing up in poverty, Fetterman said her modest upbringing shaped her to raise the emotions of others equal to her own and motivated her to create sustainable change in Pennsylvania.
Through her work at the Free Store and her hijab-compatible barbie doll initiative, which tries to combat anti-Muslim rhetoric, Fetterman has shown the courage to start different initiatives within her community to enact change.
Fetterman said her empathy and courage were built during a childhood that saw dramatic change.
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Fetterman said violence was normalized at an early age.
One night at dinner, Fetterman’s aunt told Ester Resende, Fetterman’s mom, that she had only been robbed seven times that year — a number Fetterman recalled as below average in Rio.
After that night, Fetterman said her mother decided to move the family to New York City even though she didn’t have a job in the United States, they didn’t speak the language and they didn’t have a place to stay.
Moving so far, so abruptly, Fetterman said her family was forced to scan the curbs for thrown-out furniture and shop at thrift stores for hand-me-down clothes.
Fetterman said experiencing poverty in a place with surplus drove her to build sustainable solutions to eradicate inequality.
Her first Pennsylvania nonprofit was born out of this drive. The Free Store 15104 was founded in 2014 and created sustainable change in the Braddock community by targeting hunger and poverty in a dignified setting.
“I looked forward to shopping on the curb, and I know for a lot of people that doesn’t feel like a dignified approach,” Fetterman said. “So we wanted to create a space where that solution can still be taken care of.”
Fetterman said this type of nonprofit was the first of its kind as it gave out toys, food, clothes and other household items to residents without requiring documentation.
“I definitely think it is super welcoming,” said Rae Prunty, a volunteer at the Free Store since its inception. “It doesn’t make anyone feel embarrassed or ashamed. We are all down there for a purpose, and that is to stop the food and clothing waste.”
Fetterman said the busy atmosphere of the Free Store, where everyone is searching for clothes, creates an environment where you don’t know who is a shopper and who is a buyer. Removing the element of money and documentation eliminates a variable that could cause residents to feel uncomfortable, Fetterman explained.
McCombs said the Free Store had been a key resource for her and her family, especially when her daughter was pregnant. From the Free Store, her daughter got baby formula and other newborn essentials.
Prunty said Fetterman strives to help the community in any way possible, going beyond the normal parameters of a standard food bank.
“Sometimes we can even help people pay their electric or gas bills,” Prunty said.
Fetterman’s nonprofit work extends past the Free Store — she also is the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue and For Good PGH. Both nonprofits work with the Free Store and create initiatives to help the immediate community of Braddock and the larger community of Pennsylvania. The larger reach of these organizations allows Fetterman to respond to problems in the community, as she did in 2017.
At the height of the Muslim travel ban, Fetterman’s friend had her hijab ripped off her head in a saddening Islamophobic attack.
Fetterman said she was crying for a few days when she heard the news.
“There’s a quote that I love,” Fetterman said. “It says, ‘If you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it.’ So, it’s been like, how can I respond to this situation with something beautiful?”
In response, Fetterman launched Hello Hijab, which makes hijabs for Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls had never had a hijab component, even though a 2015 Pew Research study estimated there were over three million Muslim-Americans.
Maria Cruz, a lifelong friend and board member of For Good PGH, said Fetterman could empathize with people who have a need, even if that need is unrelated to anything she has gone through.
“With the Hello Hijab initiative, she is not Muslim, but she knows that there was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment,” Cruz said. “She thought, ‘how do I normalize people in hijabs?’”
The launch of this series resulted in hijabs being placed on Barbies across the world.
Fetterman said a grandmother in Egypt sent her a heartfelt letter saying that growing up, she never had a doll who looked like her, but now she is overjoyed that her granddaughter has a doll with a hijab to play with.
Cruz noted Fetterman’s positivity and outlook are what make her initiatives impactful on the community.
“She is always presenting really positive messaging with things that are important to her and brings it to a bigger audience in intentional but casual ways,” Cruz said.
Prunty agreed with Cruz and noted her drive and passion contributed to the success of Fetterman’s work.
McCombs believes Braddock is a better place since the Fetterman family moved in.
“This community was a lot different than it is now,” McCombs said. “There was a lot of violence, there was a lot of drugs, there still is a lot of drugs, but Braddock is a lot safer.”