OAK HARBOR, Wash. -- We’re all taught as kids, it’s better to give than receive.
Changemaker Kristiina Miller realized the magic that can happen, when you put the two together. She founded the 'Garage of Blessings.' It's a thrift store where everything donated and everything is free. No strings attached. No questions asked.
Miller found her life's calling in 2012. After cleaning out a friend's clutter, she offered the belongings online to anybody who may need them.
“I took pictures of it all," says Miller. "And said if you want to come and shop for free, it will be this time tomorrow. The next day I had a line at my door.”
Then, something magical happened. The more people took-- the more the community gave. A neighborhood thrift store of sorts, that often spilled over from her two-car garage onto the lawn of her home, on the base at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
The community generosity officially got a name, when Miller overhead two women talking in her garage.
“One of them said to the other," Miller recalls. "'You know, this is, this is like a garage full of blessings.' I was like, that’s it. This is it. This is the Garage of Blessings.”
A non-profit was born.
Serving a community need
The Garage of Blessings just keeps growing. Now five moves and six years later, it occupies 6,000 square feet, serving 35,000 people every month.
“So my heart has to get bigger and bigger," Miller says. "To continue taking in all of this, to continue to give it away.”
It offers free clothes, toys, books, tools, food, luggage, household goods, decorative items and more. They've even given away donated mobile homes and trailers.
Shopping for her two young children and the two she cares for as a nanny, Annabel Forrest isn’t too proud to share about her financial struggles.
“We live paycheck to paycheck," Forrest says. "So, this really helps when I need clothes for my kids and stuff. When you don’t have money for it, you can come here and nobody judges you.”
The Garage of Blessings serves the homeless population. There's often a warm meal, and coffee or tea to fill empty stomachs. It stockpiles necessities for those sleeping outside, like jackets, boots, shoes, socks, blankets, and when available, tents.
“I’ll have people say to me, I just want you to know that you literally saved my life,” Miller says.
Alissa Triminio came in for a hot cup of coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She also found a pair of shoes. She says, she's homeless and has been sleeping in her car at night.
“This is the only place that’s free and you can take anything you need. No questions,” Triminio says. “They’re all amazing here. They like to give hugs and those are nice every once in a while, because everybody needs them’.”
Founder can relate
Miller knows those needs all too well.
“I used to be homeless too," Miller says. "I was a foster kid. I’ve lived through defeat. I’ve lived through hopelessness. I’ve lived through what a lot of these folks have lived through walking through the door.”
“I’m definitely proud of her,” says Miller's husband, Jason Miller. “The way she sees people, she really connects with people in need.”
After the deadly landslide in Oso, Washington in 2014, the Garage of Blessings rushed to bring new clothes and supplies to survivors. It’s supported people from as far away as Kenya and clothed kids in the Phillipines.
“We don’t expect anything in return." Miller says. "Just a smile. Just a smile.”
It takes a village
Forty-plus volunteers offer time, demanding physical labor, and a caring touch to keep the Garage of Blessings running.
Hair stylist Mesha Fodor offers free haircuts.
“I do it because nobody should ever feel like they don’t belong," Fodor says.
Why does she do it?
"Everybody in a room should feel like they belong there and they can fit,” she responds.
Volunteer Annette Jones used to be homeless. She leaned on the Garage of Blessings, after her apartment burned down.
“They were there when I needed them," Jones says. "The only way I know to be able to help to that degree is to be here.”
Miller says the volunteers' dedication is unmatched. “We have volunteers here who live in poverty and they give of their time to come and give to others that are in poverty.”
Miller also says, there would be no blessings if it weren’t for those who donate belongings. She gets emotional when she talks about the community's generosity.
“If the community didn’t give the way that they do," she says with a tear streaming down her face. "The Garage of Blessings wouldn’t exist.”
So we honor Kristiina Miller as a true Changemaker.
Click here to nominate a Changemaker in your community.