In George’s Free General Store, You Take What You Need and Give When You Can


“We’re like a family here, and when your family needs something, you figure out a way to help,” said Webster.

Georges Free General Store exterior

In George’s Free General Store, the motto is simple – take what you need and give when you can.

Situated in the Goosenest in Hodson Hall, the store is a free pantry stocked with grocery and personal care items. It also contains a full kitchen with pots and pans, cooking utensils, spices and more, providing space to make meals as well. The store is open at all times that Hodson is open, and a student worker is employed to help keep things neat and organized.  There is even a whiteboard on the wall that asks for feedback on what kinds of items the community would like to have available in the pantry.

While free pantries are hardly uncommon within communities, what is perhaps surprising is that a private liberal arts college such as Washington College has the need for one. And that’s where Erneatka Webster -- Co-Chair of the initiative that sponsors the Store -- comes in.

Webster, the Associate Director of Financial Aid at the College, was instrumental in the founding of the free pantry, and for good reason. It was a natural extension of her professional role, blended together with her own personal story. This combination of opportunity and understanding is ultimately what led to Webster and two other former staff members putting their heads together and finding a way to help struggling students.

“In my professional role, I see a lot, and I have personal conversations with these families,” said Webster. “They really want the Washington College experience for their son or daughter, but for some, it’s just harder to make that happen. In some cases, that results in other needs going unmet. They are making it work to invest in education, but maybe just barely and then the student is left to struggle.”

Perhaps Webster also recognized it because she herself had first-hand experience with scarcity. “Me and my two siblings were raised by a single mother, and we struggled,” she said. “I know exactly how it feels to need something, to not know what mom is going to be able to put on the table for dinner and to have to lean on family. This is very personal because I know that feeling.”

She also knows that oftentimes students don’t broadcast this information or make it known through official channels. Webster and her colleagues recognized that they were being made aware of the need unofficially. When it came around to asking themselves, “hey wouldn’t it be great if we had a free store or pantry on campus that could provide some assistance,” they knew that it was time for action. The solution was George’s Free General Store, a store on campus that would stock items that were available for free to anyone in need, no questions asked.

“We’re like a family here, and when your family needs something, you figure out a way to help,” said Webster.

But they didn’t stop there. Through research and further conversation, the idea of a larger Hunger & Homelessness Initiative was born.  HHI serves as an umbrella group that sponsors George’s Free General Store, but also has a larger mission of educating the community and removing the stigma associated with visiting the store or asking for help. “We really want to steer people away from the idea that you have to be homeless to take advantage of the store,” said Webster. “That’s not the case. If you need something, come and get it – we don’t care about your status.”

Webster really hopes to see any embarrassment or stigma about coming to the pantry to end. “If we can take away the expense of laundry detergent, toothpaste, or granola bars off their shoulders, then that makes me proud. I know then that we’re doing something to help.”

 HHI has currently 13 members, including 2 co-chairs, staff from essential departments on campus and students. Their mission is to educate and support the college community in many facets of hunger and homelessness while facing their efforts on ending students’ food and housing insecurities. HHI relies on donations from the community to keep the shelves stocked and will do donation drives periodically throughout the year.

Unsurprisingly, the initial reaction to their free pantry proposal was surprise – surprise that Washington College students were struggling with basic needs. Webster and her colleagues were ready for that, and provided both the data and the anecdotal awareness. “We knew their stories,” she said. “Between my role in the Financial Aid Office and the students who would come to us through the back door saying, ‘I need help’ we knew the need was very real.”

The Hunger and Homelessness Initiative – led by Webster and her colleagues – got their proposal approved and at the end of April in 2019, the store officially opened. They focus on stocking pantry and personal care items. But if they happen to receive clothing or other things that they don’t typically keep there, they have a strong community network as well and will always find a home for things.

Another benefit of the store is that it can help introduce students in need to greater levels of support. “For every student I know about, how many others are there that don’t come to us?” she said. “We want them to know that we’re here to help.

“Some of these kids need more than just a can of soup or a tube of toothpaste,” she added. “They are using whatever resources they can to get through and I admire that. So if we can relieve them of even one expense, and signal that they aren’t alone, then that’s a good thing.”

In addition to seeking support within the campus community, they also partner with a number of community organizations to keep the store running. Laundry for Love is one such example. In a previous summer, they partnered with a local church, with the church providing free lunches to students who were using the College’s summer housing.

Webster noted other innovative ideas to expand in the future, including partnering with the Campus Garden, so that they would be able to offer fresh produce in the store. They are also looking beyond the store itself and working to install feminine care dispensers in a variety of facilities around campus, making those products more widely available to those in need.

“I didn’t have extras growing up, and my goal now is to help people where I can,” she added. “So please come and take what you want because no one is judging you.”

Visit here to learn more about George's Free General Store.