Delaware's Common Ground free store perseveres through pandemic

Dean Narciso
The Columbus Dispatch
Volunteer Lisa Allender of Lewis Center sorts through donated clothing in the back room at the Common Ground Free Store Ministries in Delaware, on Oct. 27.

Since 2006, hundreds of families have relied on a little store near a busy crossroads in Delaware.

The Common Ground Free Store Ministries has been a refuge for the needy, where smiles and hugs are shared as freely as its bounty of housewares, clothing, toys and surprises.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has forced it to scale back its social aspects, to eliminate indoor meals in what used to be a waiting room and to usher customers through the aisles carefully, with hand sanitizer, required masks and extra-vigilant staff and customers.

The cramped store can't afford for someone to get sick, said Sharon Griner, executive director. 

"We've lost that sense of community because of (COVID-19)," she said. "If (an illness) were to happen, then we might have to shut down for two weeks. And we don't want to do that.

"With things that people are touching over and over, we're having people wash their hands. I think it's a good thing to be doing anyway with flu season coming up."

James Cooper, 61, of Delaware shows Craig Sloan, 61, of north Columbus a pair of shoes as they shop at the Common Ground Free Store Ministries in Delaware on Oct. 27.

Delaware is the suburban centerpiece of Delaware County, among Ohio's most-affluent counties. It's situated between the high-priced neighborhoods in the southern townships and the rural villages and farms to the north.

That centrality is a magnet for the county's needy and destination for those who want to help.

And the recent influx of donations has been overwhelming. Griner operates the intake area, a kind of domestic triage, where bags of clothing are stacked around her. Each garment is checked for stains and wear. Rejects are recycled elsewhere.

Dan Field drove from his home in northern Westerville, his SUV filled with carefully bagged clothing, new towel sets and small kitchen appliances.

"It both helps those in need and helps to clean things out of the house," he said.

Operating costs come from donations. And there is always need for quality shoes and clothing.

But generosity there is measured by more than than clothing, dishes, toys and canned food.

"Many people have mailed us their (CARES Act) stimulus checks," said Jennie Reed, administrative manager.

A week ago, a man driving by spotted the line outside the entrance and stopped to hand out $20 bills.

"One of the women was just in tears. It just meant the world to her because she has been living out of her van," Griner said.

The nonprofit group also is working with local restaurants, paying them from cash donations to provide meals for the needy while also helping the struggling businesses stay afloat, Reed said.

"It's a great store," said Yassah Kesselly of Delaware, who shopped with her 11-year-old, one of four children, ages 2 to 11. "I'm not making much, and this helps me with the kids' clothes."

The aroma of sloppy joes permeates the store, prepared in the kitchen by volunteers Chuck and Irene Klein and distributed for takeout. Griner stands by a near-empty shelf of children's shoes. Her previous job was in corporate America. And she's convinced the store has become her life's purpose.

Her conviction is reinforced daily by the stories she hears.

One woman would stop in frequently, select an outfit and change in the fitting room, leaving her old clothes in the trash.

"She didn't have access to wash her clothes," Griner said. "This is something I feel I'm supposed to be doing. I just feel like this is what God would have me do ... giving to the poor, taking care of the poor. That's what we're supposed to do."