Building a network by working with members of the community, local organizations and those in need, Marilena “Mari” Garza is a fervent disciple of charity. Operator and founder of The FREE Store, Garza has been serving the community by providing resources to the unhoused.
Native to Beeville, Texas, Garza holds the Coastal Bend in high regard, and began volunteering with her partner in 2020. Garza immediately noticed how many people were without shoes, so she went home and found 10 pairs she no longer needed. Thus, The FREE Store began taking form.
“The FREE Store Corpus Christi started with only shoes. It has evolved to provide clothing, ready-to-eat food, shelf-stable items, on-site first aid care, a rinse station, hygiene distribution and resources that make surviving on the street or in extreme poverty more bearable,” said Garza.
With expansion goals to meet the community’s needs, The FREE Store plans to provide a mobile closet, shower and food units. Currently, the organization consists of a core group of 10 volunteers with an additional fluctuating roster of 5-20 volunteers. While growing steadily, Garza has established a network with like-minded individuals and donors who help provide aid to The FREE Store’s inventory. Unfortunately, the demand keeps increasing. The FREE Store’s mutual aid is quick and far-reaching. With its strong digital presence, the organization is becoming more accessible, which allows inventory to deplete quickly.
“I decided someone had to do something and that I was that someone. I could do something.”
Garza said the catalyst for this organization was clear: “I live in Uptown Corpus Christi; the houseless crisis has reached an all-time high in my area of town. I decided someone had to do something and that I was someone. I could do something. I honestly didn’t anticipate it to grow this big.”
What sets The FREE Store apart begins with its slogan: “Kindness makes the difference.” The organization hosts picnics where it sets up shop, ensuring people can have choices while selecting from the inventory.
“As shoppers come through, we assist with shopping to ensure they receive everything they need to succeed in their current situation. We have conversations with them, ask how they are, learn their names and eventually learn their stories,” said Garza.
Garza exemplifies the good in the Coastal Bend and is someone who truly loves where they live. The FREE Store has given this charitable crusader, along with many shoppers and volunteers, “hope.” With that hope, Garza wants to find long-lasting solutions to the growing problem of poverty in the Coastal Bend.