This past spring, the Peterborough chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) shuttered the doors to its popular Free Market program, which offered a space at Sadleir House where community members could donate and pick up clothes and household items at no cost.
Over the summer, the Free Market space was packed and cleaned, while consultations on the future of the program were held outdoors and virtually to recruit new volunteers.
Samantha MacAndrews is the coordinator of OPIRG Peterborough. She says the decision to close the physical space was a difficult one. She and the OPIRG Peterborough board of directors had “been talking about it for a while, but we didn’t want to get rid of it. People need it, people like it, people love it. And we recognize the importance of the program. Just how can we manage this?”
The new model for the program will consist of a volunteer leadership committee called a working group that operates under the OPIRG Peterborough umbrella. The group will focus on organizing pop-up events for clothing and item giveaways.
Charleigh Chomko attended the outdoor community consultation session and signed up to volunteer with the new working group. He says that seeing the announcement that the Free Market was closing really shook him, and he wanted to know more about how he could help. “I really wanted to hear more about why they were closing the Free Market, and what we can do to organize it in any way.”
As of this week, MacAndrews says there are now six volunteers forming the core leadership committee for the reimagined Free Market, and recruitment is ongoing.
“It was a lot of small things all piled up“
Last year, the OPIRG Peterborough board of directors began informally reviewing the program and determined that it was using up too many of the organization’s resources and falling short on many of its stated objectives.
MacAndrews says the program was intended to be a volunteer operation at its core, but difficulties with recruitment and retention meant that staff hours were diverted from other programming towards the Free Market, which was attracting upwards of 30 people a week donating and taking items. “We were so busy and full capacity,” says MacAndrews. “It was a lot of small things all piled up with not enough resources at the time.”
And there were a growing list of concerns about health and safety. “I think we had like, three break-ins within six months,” MacAndrews says. “There was one time when someone was hiding in the room when it was supposed to be closed.”
The review of the program also came at a time when the organization was dealing with funding uncertainty. Provincial legislation called the Student Choice Initiative had impacted the levy funding they receive from Trent University students. MacAndrews says the organization lost a little over $40,000 during the 2019/2020 school year.
Weighing the expenditures of the program and the labour needed to keep the Free Market open, the board voted to close the physical space and convert the program into a working group. (The Student Choice Initiative was reversed in November 2019 and the levy funding has been restored to normal for this school year.)
MacAndrews hopes that closing the space will enable the organization to return its focus to other objectives, like a more significant role in research and advocacy, and supporting more working groups.
“Promote the values of reusing, sharing, repairing and recycling”
The new working group model looks a lot like how the Free Market got started 15 years ago. It was founded in 2005 by a small group of Trent University students, volunteering under the OPIRG umbrella as a working group. They coordinated events such as pop-up clothes giveaways to “promote the values of reusing, sharing, repairing and recycling,” says MacAndrews. “The focus was on creating an anti-capitalist consumerism program.”
This program shifted to a more permanent space in the OPIRG office suite at Sadleir House, open during volunteer hours. Over the years, the program became a staple for students and low-income community members looking for new clothes or household goods at no cost.
“Because we’re a grassroots organization, the community tells us what they need, and we try to help fill that gap,” says MacAndrews. “In Peterborough, poverty and housing and food insecurity are massive issues.” But there’s a balancing act between responding to the issues and working within the capacity of a small organization, MacAndrews says.
“One of the things that I recognized when we were considering transitioning the Free Market was: is the need covered? From my understanding, [a free market] has not existed in any other way,” MacAndrews says. As long as there is a need for the Free Market, “we need to make sure it exists. What kind of plan can we put in place to make sure that [it does] five years from now?”
Putting the plan into action
The new Free Market Working Group is diving into its new model with a Halloween costume contest event this Saturday, MacAndrews says. More details will be available on OPIRG Peterborough’s social media channels and website.