For Des Moines captives Harry and Terry Swanson, their “calling,” so to speak, came to them by chance.
“When we retired, we didn’t quite know what we wanted to do,” Harry said. “I thought I’d be doing a lot of golf and those kinds of things. And then this guy came into church one day and said, ‘You’ve got this truck, I’ve got this idea.’ We’ve got our mission.”
“This guy” was Jim Brown, a longtime friend and fellow St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church-goer of the Swansons. Brown spent some of his time painting at a local homeless shelter, and he asked the shelter’s director about the needs of the communities served there.
He quickly learned that women, particularly survivors of domestic violence, often stay at the shelter about a month longer than usual, even if they have a job and an apartment. The problem was furnishing their new homes.
So, in 2001, Brown organized a drive for dishes and silverware through St. Timothy’s, and for a while, the collaboration was simply an outreach of the church. Harry got involved because he had a truck—he could transport larger furniture items for the women and families in need.
In 2005, after a few years of finding donors and community support, the FreeStore grew to become an independent 501©3 charity. The Swansons, Brown, and the FreeStore’s new board of trustees settled into a new, larger warehouse to store donations ranging from couches to dinner plates.
In 2008, Jim Brown passed away after struggling with glioblastoma, but the Swansons continued to run the FreeStore with his legacy to fuel them. Harry was still working on solidifying a donation system when Brown passed, but the Swansons made an excellent team.
“I was giving him behind the scenes advice,” Terry said.
“A lot of it,” Harry added with a laugh.
Even in their retirement, they continue to serve the Des Moines community with great vigor. Their clients give them all the motivation they need to keep going.
“We hear wonderful stories about kids and families and the feelings that they send back to us,” Terry said. “One time, they unloaded some beds for a family who had several kids, and the kids were arguing about who was going to get the first sleepover.”
“They got bunk beds,” Harry continued, “and when one of them saw what they had, he said, ‘Hey, mom, can we have a sleepover tonight?’ And you know, it doesn’t mean much to a person, but when you realize they had been sleeping on the floor, they didn’t have the experience of being able to invite friends over, and now they did … that was a significant thing in their lives.”
The Swansons also developed a partnership with a local Kentucky Fried Chicken location to retrieve their leftover food. They re-package the chicken and biscuits they receive from KFC and gift one meal to each family when they come to choose their new furniture.
“As Harry says, you shouldn’t have to cook on moving day,” Terry said.
In the most recent era of the FreeStore, they’ve expanded the range of products they provide. While it began with solely furniture, they began to realize that other needs weren’t being met for the families they helped.
“One day, I was at the warehouse, and I saw a mother with her child and they were looking at things,” Terry said. “I happened to hear the little boy say, ‘Well, I’d rather be hungry than dirty, mom, ‘cause they can’t tell when I’m hungry, but they can tell when I’m dirty.’”
So, they began to offer laundry and cleaning supplies, too.
“At an organization like that, there’s always one little thing that will trigger a whole new avenue,” Terry said.
In the FreeStore’s early years, it took a lot of effort to recruit enough help to get it on its feet. Luckily, it’s since been well-received by the surrounding community and it now has around one hundred volunteers.
“When you’re an all-volunteer organization like we are, a passion is shared by all the volunteers. It is so amazing how good people are, how much they want to help,” Terry said. “That’s a powerful feeling that there’s that many people in the world who are willing to help however they can.”
Between 2011 and 2016, the FreeStore served 1,400 families, and it consistently serves between 250 and 300 families in the Des Moines metro area annually. Clearly, the needs the FreeStore addresses are great, and the Swansons’ dedication to the charity are instrumental in bettering the community for everyone.
“There are all kinds of things that keep people down, and they need to be responded to,” Terry said. “It’s our responsibility as human beings to do that. It makes a safer world for all of us, actually.”
Before the FreeStore, Terry taught English and math and spent time as a technical writer. Harry was a fighter pilot for ten years and then made his career as a mechanical engineer. They’ve done a lot of traveling throughout their lives and even spent three years in Shanghai, China for Harry’s work.
But now retired, they’ve somewhat settled down. When they’re not managing the FreeStore, they play competitive bridge, read, and spend time with their four children and seven grandchildren.
They certainly didn’t expect something like the FreeStore to come into their lives, but its presence has been instrumental to the improvement of the Des Moines community, and the Swansons are the sturdy backbone of it all.
“We started out thinking we were helping families start over, but what we really find is we’re helping them restore their dignity, which is really powerful,” Harry said. “And you see that. It’s very rewarding.”
Terry and Harry Swanson were inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame on Tuesday, April 17 at Volunteer Iowa’s honors event at the State Capitol. The Swansons were recognized for their many years of tireless service to the Des Moines community and honored for the work they continue to complete in their retirement.
To help the Swansons continue their selfless work, visit the FreeStore’s website to browse volunteer openings and other ways to get involved.