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I just got back from visiting the Off the Rack; Barrie Free Clothing store at the corner of Toronto and Dunlop streets behind Meineke Motors. What a cornucopia of goodness!

Every month literally hundreds of people shop in this store, helping themselves to an item or two from the 'free room', maybe splurging on an outfit from the $3 room or hitting on a 'find' in the boutique and vintage clothing room.

Karen Fox, local realtor, member of Be Green Barrie, member of Transition Barrie, enthusiast and advocate for people generally, picked up the reigns a few years ago when Valerie Shrivener left the single room she was offered at a local church. The church needed the space and Valerie packed up the clothes and connected with Karen and her sister in law, Ruth Blaicher, and asked them to help find space. It was 2006.

Today Off the Rack is a thriving multi-room operation in the back of 110 Dunlop St W, offering much more than clothing for people. Bargain hunters are thrilled when they score a name brand for $3. A woman today got an entire outfit for a wedding and paid less than $10, including shoes. As I was leaving, one of the store's male customers was decking himself out in an attractive dress overcoat and he was thrilled.

While Off The Rack is there to help three different types of clientele, it's also there so the remarkably creative Elfreda can sit at one of the sewing machines and repurpose clothes. She's created remarkable short/long skirts that are one-of-a-kind pieces of art. She teaches people how to create toques and vests from long sleeved sweaters, aprons from something else and all kinds of neat bags from blue jeans.

The store seems endless as you walk through tidy room after tidy room, painted by donated paint and Patrick Doyle, painter. A kitchen gives volunteer staff a place to eat lunch, have meetings, run workshops and in it is counter, sink and cupboards (thanks Home Depot and plumber Dave Reynolds) and a fridge found at roadside and repainted. This is a store dedicated to recycling of every kind and offering mens, womens, and childrens clothes, books, toys, shoes, belts, jewellery, bags, household items... well, it all just helps people in their lives.

Operating from a respecting viewpoint, Karen says they've recently instituted a membership card so shoppers using the store can actually belong to the serrvice. They can help themselves to a limited number of free items plus they'll get help from volunteers to complete an outfit when necessary.

The vintage section and the boutique room offer bargain price tags for superb items, many still with their original price tags.

I visited with Karen as she opened one of the six or seven donation bags that had come in today. She lifted out shirts and sweaters... some are set aside for laundering, buttons, repairs; some are ironed, and some are put on hangers and hung in the appropriate room as soon as possible. Inventory is donated by the public and goes out the door to willing, grateful shoppers.

Both Karen and Ruth continue with their real estate businesses but certainly use the flexibility in their work schedules to donate lots of energy to Off The Rack needs.

"Only a small portion of our customers are homeless. We get a lot of men living in boarding houses. So often I think about how close we all are to living like this... you lose your job, your marriage splits up, you start drinking, there's no where to live, you can't get a job... it's a spiral," she says with her gentle smile.

While the free room helps a lot of people, it's sales from the $3 room that pay the rent. If Karen has a little money left over at the end of the month she buys something for the store,a vacuum cleaner one month, and sizing circles another month. Signage was donated by the Sign and Display store.

Karen's most enthused about the current Vintage Collection brought in by a man whose wife had passed away. "She must have worked at Eatons because a lot of the clothes have Eatons tags. Some are really cute dresses from the 50's. They are definitely 50's and 60's clothes. I've priced them individually, bought an ad in the Examiner and people are coming in to shop.

Thrift shoppers are very important to the store, and volunteers reach out to help customers from several agencies in Barrie.

So, if the store has room after room of items what do they need?

"We need new underwear, for both men and women, socks and leotards desperately, mens and women's coats. We need long sleeved shirts and sweaters, gloves, mitts, hats, scarves, boots, raincoats. And we always need volunteers," says Karen. "We have people who volunteer for companionship, people who are job hunting and need resume material, students doing service hours, retired people, and all our volunteers work at least half a day so we need 24 people to run the operation every week. We need eachers to teach classes in sewing, knitting, crochet, design."

The store is open 10 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays.

Obvious question as Karen walked me through the store is why she spends so much energy there. "I see a need. I know I can help with this. I'm a good organizer, see how to improve things. Everything for me is connected. It all matters."

Thanks, Karen. And thanks to all the volunteers who make this happen.

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