Illustration by Rini Templeton

Maria Gonzalez was desperate. Her husband of five years had recently left her and their two young children, taking the family car with him. The 25-year-old Potrero Hill native was struggling to make ends meet, but even after government help, she still needed support. The food program, known as WIC, for example, offered only three gallons of milk a month. “My kids go through one gallon (in) maybe three or four days,” she said. 

Compounding her struggles were her children’s frequent hospital visits. Her daughter, not yet 2, was experiencing a chronic condition that required intubation and weeks in the hospital. Her infant son was being treated for a possible brain tumor. Their medical appointments forced her to miss work, and she worried about losing her job as a receptionist. With no real friends to rely on, she decided to seek kindness from strangers, and logged into the SF Buy Nothing Facebook group. 

The online community is free, and strives to create a gift economy that emphasizes kindness over consumerism. It consists of thousands of subgroups across 44 countries, including more than 20 neighborhood-specific groups within San Francisco. Clothes and furniture are commonly available, yet more unique items can also be found. Dryer lint, pickle juice and countless cardboard boxes are some of the unexpected “goods” members have passed on to others. 

Gonzalez had used Buy Nothing in the past to give away baby accessories and a dresser, so she decided to reach out to them for support. Her late-night post seeking food and diapers last June received more than 100 comments. She was flooded with offers of food, baby wipes, and diapers, as well as new toys and party decorations for her kids’ upcoming birthdays. One woman volunteered to pick up items for Gonzalez in 10 different neighborhoods; another included a link where she could apply for paid family leave for caregivers. Gonzalez was moved to tears. 

While Buy Nothing is a great place to obtain kitsch desk lamps and leftover chocolate mousse cake, it’s more than just a dumping ground for closet purges and move-out discoveries. It helps excess food get to people who’ll eat it, and gives unwanted clothes a second life in someone else’s closet. It allows people to save money by avoiding unnecessary purchases that can instead be gifted by a fellow member. For Gonzalez, and others in need, Buy Nothing can be a lifeline. 

“I wasn’t expecting that much help,” she said. ”I just thought … they’re just gonna send me a meal, but … some people actually sent me a lot of food. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have more than enough.’” She posted the extra groceries on Buy Nothing.

The Buy Nothing project began in 2013 as a Facebook group created by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller in Bainbridge Island, Washington. The two friends hatched the idea after sharing concerns about the abundance of plastic on a beach near Seattle. Today, Buy Nothing boasts more than 4 million members worldwide, with at least 24 subgroups in San Francisco, including one for the Mission. Anyone living in a subgroup’s designated area is free to join by requesting access from an administrator.

When Nicole Belanger, who works for Home Bridge, the philanthropic arm of Apartment List, began helping Afghan refugee families, she turned to Buy Nothing. “I was able to outfit the whole one-bedroom with three beds; two couches; coffee table; TV; TV stand; dining table; and chairs, and get that all arranged and picked up the same morning and then moved over to the unit by the movers,” she said. 

Jenny Phu also summoned her neighborhood Buy Nothing group last August to support those fleeing Afghanistan and settling here. “The idea that you have to flee a country, drop everything, leave everything — that’s so crushing,” Phu said. “And I know firsthand what it does to people.”  Her parents and sister, a toddler at the time, survived capture and imprisonment before fleeing Vietnam in 1979 and arriving in Oakland as refugees.  

Eager to help the Afghani refugees in some way, Phu reached out to the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in Pleasanton. She learned what refugee families needed most and requested donations on Buy Nothing. The next weekend, she drove to the MCC and delivered a carload of diapers, baby wipes and traditional Afghan foods. She said she was glad to help give back, and hopes the donated goods helped the refugees feel “a sense of dignity” as they adjust to their new community. 

Mimi Nguyen uses Buy Nothing to help the homeless. The 38-year-old San Francisco native volunteers her time to drive around the city in her silver 2002 Toyota Camry, collecting items for Road to Resilience (R2R). The nonprofit provides support to high-risk women who are pregnant or have infants, offering them services until the child’s first birthday. Clients include women suffering from homelessness, addiction and/or domestic abuse. 

Nguyen knows the organization well. She’s been a client since 2019, when she was addicted to opioids and sleeping in homeless shelters. Today, she lives with her partner and their healthy 2-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom Oceanside apartment, thanks in part to a housing voucher and support from R2R and other programs, including the Lily Project and the Homeless Prenatal Program. “I have a lot to be thankful and grateful for,” Nguyen said. “I’m in a position where I can give back and really relate to the women who are in need and who are grateful for anything. That’s really how it led me to Buy Nothing.” 

Road to Resilience periodically contacts Nguyen with a list of needs, which she then posts in the SF Buy Nothing group. Many of the items end up in welcome bags for new mothers. Nguyen still remembers receiving hers more than two years ago, which included a pair of goldenrod infant socks with aquamarine heels and toes. The socks now sit in a keepsake box to remind her of the past and motivate her to continue making good choices. “We had nothing, like nothing,” she said, her voice cracking. “We didn’t even have a stroller to take her home in or a car seat.” 

Nine months later, Gonzalez’s journey has also gotten easier. Her kids no longer need weekly hospital visits, and they recently enjoyed small birthday celebrations with gifts donated by people they’ve never met. When asked to recount the night she asked her Buy Nothing group for help, Gonzalez prefaced her answer by apologizing if she cried. Her reservations about being perceived as a single mother looking for handouts had initially made her reluctant to ask for help, but she’s glad she acquiesced. “I just thought that (Buy Nothing) page is very helpful,” she said. “I’ve … helped other people there (and realized) you know what? Maybe it’s my turn. Maybe I need help.” 

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4 Comments

  1. Used to use Craiglist to much the same ends and have nothing but good things to say about my experiences on BN, both offering and requesting. My gf has gotten yoga mats for her students and I’ve given away headphones needing repair, spices, clothes, a bike. I’m happy to see it all appreciated.

  2. I would very much like to join “buy nothing” – Mission district. Any hints you have would be appreciated!
    Thanks,
    Laura ODonovan, 1421 Rhode Island St, SF CA 94107

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