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A Richmond mutual aid group is fundraising to open a free store

People standing in front of service bay
Volunteers with MAD RVA. (Photo courtesy Yaya Ogaldez)

For Richmonders in need of essentials like food, water and supplies for their children, there may soon be a place to access those resources completely free of charge.

Mutual Aid Distribution Richmond, also known as MAD RVA, is fundraising to open a ‘free store’ in the capital city next year.

Amid 2018 cold snap, residents came together to help each other

MAD RVA formed during the winter of 2018 to provide local houseless Richmonders with essential supplies like coats and socks to survive the cold snap that blew through the city that year. In March of 2020, the group reorganized to respond to the needs of all Richmonders impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to volunteer Yaya Ogaldez, scarcity in essential supplies has only worsened over the last year.

Person crouched by shopping carts
Yaya Ogaldez alongside a haul of groceries. (Photo courtesy Yaya Ogaldez)

“One thing that I’ve learned through this pandemic is that it has laid bare a lot of things, a lot of issues about the city…. that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Ogaldez said. “Food insecurity was something that existed long before the pandemic.”

For the majority of 2020, the organization held in-person and online supply drives for donations to support the community. This year, they’ve transitioned to a delivery system where community members can request specific items from their warehouse of supplies to be dropped off at their door. Additionally, the group offers a mini-grant program of $200 for those in need of immediate and direct financial assistance.

Like with their food delivery program, MAD RVA doesn’t require people to prove they don’t have the resources to support themselves or their families to access financial assistance. Instead, anyone can ask for for these services, no questions asked.

“The most beautiful part of the project is that we trust people when they come to us and say that they need things,” Ogaldez said. “Continuing to be low barrier is a tenet and a value that we as a collective hold.”

Building a permanent site

The free store they’re now fundraising to create is Ogaldez’s vision for the next evolution of MAD RVA’s service to the community.

In addition to deliveries, they and other volunteers plan to open a physical store where their inventory will be available for customers to take home free of charge. Like their other services, the store will be open to anyone in need of the resources they offer.

“My dream is to have shelving set up that has a lot of essentials, a lot of the same things that we carried in the warehouse in a more central location. So we're still gonna have those canned goods, we’re still going to have that pasta, still gonna have those cold items, still going to have snacks for kids,” Ogaldez said. “A place where people can come and have a bit more autonomy over their choices.”

Ogaldez says their idea for the free store was inspired by similar projects around Charlottesville and in Canada. The free store near Charlottesville, called Visions of Liberation Free Store, is open on Wednesdays and Sundays at Visible Records in Albemarle County.

The one they’re planning for Richmond, according to Ogaldez, will hopefully open at the beginning of 2022 in the Northside.

“Choosing Northside was also an intentional decision. Because at the moment, there isn’t a viable grocery store in Northside, at least not to my knowledge,” Ogaldez said. “There is a spot in Northside that we’re really, really liking. It seems like it has everything that we would need to be able to make the free store possible.”

The store will operate entirely on donations of time and resources.

Since its creation, MAD RVA has grown from a small handful of committed individuals to a network of 35-40 consistently involved volunteers. In addition to accepting individuals’ donations, the organization also works with local businesses and farms to eliminate waste by redistributing excess food to the community.

Ogaldez envisions that the store will operate much like any other grocery store, with aisles of dry products and refrigerators stocked with fresh produce. Additionally, they hope it will operate not only as a resource center, but a testament to the power of mutual aid.

“I’m hoping to be able to have conversations with folks that come in about the importance of mutual aid,” Ogaldez says. “That’s really one of the main goals as well of the space, not only to be able to provide people with things that they need, but to also explain the why and the how.”

How you can help

Person stands with grocery bags
A MAD RVA volunteer stand with several bags of groceries. (Photo courtesy Yaya Ogaldez)

MAD RVA is currently accepting cash donations for the development of the free store and for their mini-grant program. To open the store, they’re hoping to raise a total of $30,000.

MAD RVA says the public  can sign up to give a one-time donation or become recurring contributors at the link in their Instagram bio.

The organization has temporarily closed its delivery program while it transitions from operating out of a warehouse to the free store, so they’re not currently accepting donations of supplies or food. They’re also currently not accepting applications for new volunteers while they regroup before transitioning to the free store next year.