By Kirsten Swann
The wall of the “Pass It On Alaska! Pay It Forward!” Facebook page looks like the message board at a well-used community center or neighborhood exchange, covered in offerings of hand-me-down goods and requests for food, baby supplies and other necessities.
“Women’s shoes. Not the prettiest but gets the job done. Located in Mt. View,” one post reads.
Another group member offers up two grocery bags of baby food.
“I would like to pay it forward,” she writes. “I took some, but would like to share because my baby is doing stage 1 and won’t be able to eat all the stage 2 for a little bit and they were paid forward to me.”
Scroll through the posts and you’ll find boxes of vegetables and bags of canned foods; a tattered but still-good coupon book; secondhand clothes; tires and furniture and bottles of shampoo. You can pick them up in Midtown, South Anchorage, Muldoon, Chugiak – all over Anchorage. There are people with things they no longer use and people in need and they meet in the middle on Facebook.
The online group, founded last summer by born-and-raised Alaskan Karen Garcia, is based on a simple idea.
“I think that no matter who you are, if you can help someone else you really should,” she said, standing in the parking lot of the Debarr Road Walmart on a clear and cold Saturday afternoon in late January.
It’s not a new concept, but Garcia said she was inspired to take it a step further by the reach of the World Wide Web.
“I look at how many people are friends on my personal [Facebook] page, and then I’m like, ‘You know what? If I created an actual page, let’s see how many people would help.’”
At first, she thought about how cool it would be if the group reached 100 members. It quickly swelled to 2,600. And counting. The group focuses on homeless Alaskans, but helps anyone in need.
In August, a month after Garcia launched the group, a state backlog led to long delays for many Alaskans who rely on food stamps. Garcia noticed a surge in requests for food on her pay-it-forward page and organized the group’s first food drive, which then turned into a food and clothing drive. The event drew dozens of people.
“It was huge,” she said.
Now, it’s a weekly thing.
Garcia, who works in the oil and gas industry, collects donations throughout the week and spends the weekends distributing them to anyone in need.
One recent Friday, she picked up big cardboard boxes of arugula and squash and other organic vegetables donated by a local grocer. The next day, she packed them into her Jeep and drove them over to the eastside parking lot to give away. That Sunday, she spent the evening volunteering at Brother Francis Shelter alongside a half-dozen other members of the pay-it-forward Facebook group.
And the momentum keeps building.
Donations pour in from all corners of Anchorage. Two different Starbucks locations provided containers of hot water for one of the group’s drives. A Value Village donated 26 boxes of warm clothes. A local Girl Scout troop gave more than 100 sack lunches.
“Word is just kind of getting around – people know people,” Garcia said.
Tammy Repasky joined Garcia’s Facebook group last August, soon after her family arrived in Alaska. She said they’d been involved in a similar group in New York state, when the family was stationed at Fort Drum, and she didn’t want to leave it behind when they moved across the country.
In Anchorage, she sought out ways to volunteer and was impressed by how involved Garcia’s group seemed to be. Everybody was coming together, she said, and that’s exactly what she was looking for.
“We just wanted to give back to the community; just do our part,” Repasky said. “This is a passion that I have. I just don’t want to see someone go hungry.”
For her, it’s personal.
About 21 years ago, Repasky said, she found herself pregnant in a new state, struggling alongside her husband to get their young family back on its feet. They went through some hard times, and things only got worse before they got better.
“We’ve been there, and done that and don’t ever want to be there again,” Repasky said. “When I see someone like that, it breaks my heart.”
That’s where “Pass It On Alaska! Pay It Forward!” comes in.
On a recent Saturday, Garcia and Repasky and a few other volunteers stood in the parking lot of the Debarr Road Walmart, waving down passing drivers with donated bunches of arugula and promises of free food.
One by one, people stopped by to take some. One woman pulled over to gather squash and other produce into a plastic bag. Another stepped off the bus at a nearby stop and filled a bag with greens before continuing on her way. One man left his car running in the parking lot, driver’s side door open, while he hopped out to gather some of the free produce sitting in boxes on the ground.
“We have so much food and we just need to get rid of it,” Garcia told him. He smiled.
Most of the people who passed Garcia’s group Saturday kept driving. Some waved. A lot of times, she said, people look at them like they’re insane.
“They think we’re crazy, because they don’t see people do this a lot,” Garcia said.
She looks at it a little differently. It’s a way to make the community stronger; give a hand up to those in need. And, powered by Facebook, it’s catching on.
“It’s a gift,” she said.