Volunteers Hope Free Boutique Will Replace Wardrobes, Boost Spirits After Montecito's Traumas

"The vision is neighbors for neighbor," said Berna Kieler, a Montecito resident who came up with the idea said.

When the latest evacuation order was lifted Friday for fire and rain battered Montecito, many headed home. Others put that off to deal with a more pressing commitment--launching the Recovery Free store.

"The vision is neighbors for neighbor," said Berna Kieler, a Montecito resident who came up with the idea of a creating a pop-up boutique of donated clothing as a way to help replace the wardrobes of community members whose homes and possessions were damaged or destroyed by the devestating debris flows in January.

The space near the Vons market in a Montecito shopping center became available at the end of February. Kieler and colleagues rushed to ready it for opening today--a goal made all the more challenging by the evacuation ordered Thursday, but fortunately lifted Friday morning.

Montecito's image notwithstanding, not every resident is wealthy, but many of the donors are.  The Recovery Free Store looks less like a thrift shop than an upscale boutique, complete with designer labels, but not price tags--everything is free for residents who suffered loss.

Kieler said the concept goes beyond replacing clothes, and the hope now is to create a space for fellowship and restoring community spirit.  It has been tested in recent months by the natural disasters that began with the Thomas Fire that left the mountainsides above the south Santa Barbara County coast more vulnerable to heavy rain.

There will be soup provided by Santa Barbara's non-profit Organic Soup Kitchen, and a yoga instructor to lead stretching sessions.

For Kieler, it is a way not only to deal with the uncertainties and traumas that have rocked Montecito, but to embrace what Sheriff Bill Brown calls the "new normal."

The Recovery Free store is scheduled for a "soft" opening today, and planned to remain in operation through March, though Kieler said that could be extended.

"It's about community.  And it's about people helping people, and rebuilding spirits, and the whole concept of health and well-being that we need to replace in our community.  That's what it's about."  

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