The I.V. Free Box is one of the things about Isla Vista that make it special.

Cat Neushul

During the more than 10 years I’ve lived in Santa Barbara, I’ve made the trek down to the I.V. Free Box again and again. You may ask why. Sure, I’ve dropped stuff off at most of the area thrift stores, but there’s nothing quite like the Free Box. For one thing, I’ve been turned away from more than one thrift store with items that were deemed unworthy. I once tried to drop off a set of dishes that we had been using but no longer wanted. The gentleman at the thrift store drop-off just shook his head no and told me to take them back. I tried to explain that there was nothing wrong with them, but he still didn’t want them. I don’t remember what I did with those dishes, but it was a turning point in my giving career. From then on I tried to find new homes for unwanted items in places they would actually be appreciated.

One of those places was the I.V. Free Box. I’ve dropped off jeans, shoes, children’s books, and stuffed animals. Once I even left a fully functioning coffee maker. Each time I leave items, I’ve noticed that people come by to check them out, even before I’ve driven away. They seem to keep an eye out for people leaving items in the open wooden bins located on Embarcadero del Mar, in front of the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District (IVRPD) office. You might see members of a family holding up a shirt or pair of pants to see what the others think. Or you might see a student looking for something they need, or might like, such as a new pair of sandals. Or you might find a homeless person looking for something to keep them warm at night.

I’ve encountered many interesting people while dropping off items. One woman, who saw I had left a pair of jeans, asked me if I had them in a particular size. She told me about a homeless friend of hers who was in need of some more clothes. She also told me about herself, and how she had once been homeless, but was now off the streets. Before she left, she gave explicit instructions on how to find her friend, if I had what he needed. It was one of the many ways people at the Free Box show that they care.

In its more than 30-year history, the Free Box has been used as a drug den and as a sleeping space. That was when it was covered and enclosed. It’s been set on fire – twice. It’s been moved from Seville to its current location on Embarcadero Del Mar. It’s been removed and rebuilt by Eagle Scout Andy Emory. And with this rich history has come many proponents.

When the IVRPD threatened to remove the Free Box for good several years ago as a result of violent arguments, people leaving dangerous items such as hypodermic needles, and a myriad of other issues, the Friends of the I.V. Free Box stepped in to offer their support. One way they did this was by distributing some positive information about this beloved receptacle. They even came up with a type of manifesto: “The Free Box is a place to leave clothes you no longer need so others can enjoy them : It’s also a great spot to make friends and build community. The Free Box is a commons – a community resource that benefits all of us and needs each of us to take responsibility for its care.”

Below the guiding principles is a list of do’s and don’ts. While most of the rules are pretty obvious – keep things clean, take only what you need, only leave items that fit in the bins, no TVs, no computers, no furniture – some were a little more intriguing. The list of don’ts includes no wax, liquids, powders, or jigsaw puzzles. And people were asked to leave the lizards and plants alone. At first glance I thought they were trying to discourage people from leaving lizards in the box, but this particular don’t is actually a request to be kind to the landscaped area surrounding the box.

One of the people who has supported the Free Box over the years has personal reasons for feeling so strongly. Helen Meloy, who is now a professor at Santa Barbara City College and Cal State Northridge, said she used the I.V. Free Box to clothe her family while she was going to school.

“That’s how I survived in graduate school,” she said. With six children to clothe, and not enough money to even consider buying from a thrift store, Meloy said she used the Free Box for eight or nine years. “My only ‘purchases’ were free from the Free Box,” she said.

Meloy said she often found designer clothes with the tags still attached. She said she would wash them, and wear them in style. “In the 1980s I used to joke about having something in common with Nancy Reagan – we both wore designer clothes that we didn’t have to pay for,” she said in an email asking the IVRPD to keep the Free Box in 2005. She also said the Free Box provides a great way to recycle.

Each year the box is removed at the beginning of June when the students move out. This is to prevent people from engaging in excessive dumping. People are encouraged to take their unwanted items to the Give Sale, a yearly event in which furniture, clothes, and other items are sold in an effort to benefit community organizations and nonprofits..

Meloy said the Free Box was a type of community institution that everyone should have. “I hope people start doing this in their community,” she said. “The biggest gift you can give is the gift of survival.”


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