WEST WARWICK — Coreen St. Jean’s mission when she founded Be The Change/ Project Hand Up was to build a place where those in need could shop proudly for food and toiletries without worrying about cost. The nonprofit organization has served thousands of local families over the years, and as they prepared last week to open the doors to a new location, St. Jean and her volunteers were eager to continue the important work they’ve been doing.
“We’re a little overwhelmed, but we’re excited,” St. Jean said last Friday from the organization’s store on Factory Street, which opened Tuesday.
At around 9,000 square feet, the new building is more than eight times the size of Project Hand Up’s former location on Brookside Avenue. Though the previous space worked OK for three years, it became clear last year that the organization had outgrown the small shop.
“We were packed to the brim,” St. Jean said, standing in the spacious new building as volunteers unpacked boxes and placed items onto shelves.
Because of its small size, only five shoppers could peruse the previous store at a time. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, when the shop was open, people wrapped around the corner of the building waiting to be let in.
“This program is about dignity,” St. Jean said. “Standing out in the middle of Arctic in a line is not about dignity. Our biggest goal was to get those people off the street somehow.”
Founded in 2017 as a supplemental food program, Be The Change/ Project Hand Up has striven since to ensure no one ever has to choose between eating and paying bills. For a small donation, people are invited in to stock up on whatever they need, from fresh produce and canned goods to soap and over-the-counter medications.
“It’s a ‘hand up,’ not a handout,” St. Jean said. “That little bit that they’re paying gives them dignity, and whatever money comes in gets regenerated into the store.”
Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Panera Bread, Stop & Shop and Roch’s are among the supermarkets and restaurants that regularly deliver food to the organization. Boxes of goods from those places rested on the floor Friday, waiting to be unpacked; more than a dozen pallets of items donated by Ocean State Job Lot, the nonprofit’s biggest contributor, sat against one of the walls.
Partnerships have also been established recently with Johnson and Wales University and Seven Stars Bakery, each of which will supply Project Hand Up with pastries and breads.
In the former location, St. Jean and her volunteers struggled to find room for all the donations — the basement, a trailer and St. Jean’s home served as makeshift storage spaces for those goods that couldn’t fit on the shelves. Still, St. Jean has always been happy to accept whatever contributions come her way.
“We never refuse, because we can move it,” she said. “That’s why they call us — it’s not going to go to waste.”
St. Jean began searching last year for a larger venue that could accommodate all the food and guests. And it was critical, she said, that the organization remain in Arctic Village.
“I was not going to leave there unless we were [in Arctic],” St. Jean said of the original location. “This is where the need is.”
She checked out a couple of possibilities, and none felt quite right. But after hearing from a volunteer that Estate Services had moved to Manchester Street, leaving the building at the bottom of Factory Street vacant, St. Jean figured it was worth a look.
“When I walked in I got chills all over my body. I just knew it was our place,” St. Jean said. “The landlord was awesome, gave us a price we could afford, and now here we are.”
Volunteers were hard at work Friday morning preparing for opening day. Though there was still a lot to be done, the wide open space was beginning to resemble a typical grocery store, with cereal and crackers and chips arranged neatly along rows of wire shelving.
The operation will run a lot like it always has, St. Jean said, adding that she hopes to create an atmosphere similar to that of any other food market.
“They can come in and they can shop at their leisure,” she said.
The store is divided into sections. In the “unlimited” section, for example, shoppers will be invited to fill their bags with whatever items they need.
Another section of the store will carry items like vegetables, fruits, breads and pastries, much of which Project Hand Up purchases weekly — though the organization receives most items through donations, it buys a lot of the produce and meats itself.
“They’ll actually get a personal shopper in here,” St. Jean added, noting that the accompanying volunteer will be able to describe uses for the various goods in the “limited” section.
A section in the back of the store meanwhile will contain specialty products like pet food, toiletries and occasional bulk food items.
Project Hand Up in its previous location saw up to 80 shoppers during each three-hour period it was open. In 2017 alone, the organization served 4,784 families and has continued to welcome new customers each year since — last year, 7,115 families shopped at the nonprofit.
And in the new space, St. Jean said she hopes to reach even more people.
“We have no idea what to expect,” she said with a laugh. “But these volunteers have all been here since the beginning. We all know what we have to do.”
Project Hand Up is now open at its new location at 15 Factory St., West Warwick Tuesdays from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 2:30 to 6 p.m.