By Mark Saal Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah
Michelle Bytheway knows firsthand the power of the Internet for good.
"When we got married, my husband only had one tie," the 28-year-old Clinton woman said. "He misplaced it, and didn't want to go to church without one."
The couple, who'd had a baby together at age 17, didn't have a lot of money for luxuries like neckties. So Bytheway got on an online chat group and explained her husband's predicament.
Within hours, she'd received four or five offers of ties.
"One woman said, 'Give me your address, and I'll bring your husband a tie by Sunday,' " Bytheway said.
In the meantime, a few other people contacted her, providing a variety of ties for husband Chris.
"And then, Saturday night at 10 o'clock, this woman shows up with 10 ties," Bytheway said.
Silk ties, polyester ties, nice ties, ugly ties.
"By Sunday, we had 50 to 75 ties," she said. "It was amazing -- all from four or five people."
It's that willingness to share that led Bytheway to start a Facebook group called "Free Items Weber and Davis (Northern Utah) Counties."
What the invitation-only group lacks in a catchy name, it makes up for in charity. Started about a year ago, the group now has almost 4,000 members.
The idea is simple: If you have something to give away -- or if you're in need of something but don't have the money to buy it -- you post to the Facebook page.
Everything has to be free; no selling or advertising allowed. You have to be invited into the group, but Bytheway says it's getting quite popular.
"I'd say we get a hundred requests a day," she said.
Of those 100, the group will accept maybe 50.
"And we probably boot two or three people a day for not following the rules," she said.
The page has gotten so busy that Bytheway -- who has three young daughters to raise -- now has two volunteer moderators who help run the page for her.
Kortnee Weis, one of those moderators, says she likes the idea of giving items a second chance.
Weis first discovered the Free Items site when she was looking for things like blankets and kennels for a local no-kill rescue organization, Pack N' Pounce Animal Rescue.
"I became a moderator to help Michie Bytheway keep things running smoothly," the Ogden woman wrote in a Facebook chat. "The page helps the community by helping those who are a little less fortunate."
Weis says one of the most common items needed is baby supplies -- "which tend to be very pricy as it is."
Other popular items on the site, according to the women, are clothing, food, and electronic accessories like cellphone chargers.
The other Free Items moderator, who left an abusive relationship and asked to be identified only as "Angela from Layton," says she joined the group initially because she had some items to give away.
"If you look at things like kids clothes, you can sell them to places that re-sell them and make a profit, or you can donate them to a thrift store where they sell them for sometimes way more than they are worth," Angela wrote in a Facebook chat. "So I prefer to give things like that directly to people who need them."
And Angela knows what it's like to be in need.
"When I got divorced and moved to Utah 4 1/2 years ago, I had nothing but the clothes on my back and what I could cram into a couple of suitcases," she wrote. "So I can definitely relate to where some of these people are coming from ... ."
Bytheway knows her Facebook group isn't a new idea -- she basically copied it from a national site, freecycle.org.
More recently, Bytheway started another Facebook group, called "Recycle Your Stuff Weber and Davis Counties."
This much smaller group, which has about 600 members, is only for those interested in giving away items -- no "ISO" (in search of) posts allowed.
"The Recycle group was created by Michie as a place JUST for people giving things away because the Free Things group seemed to be so overrun with people begging for things for awhile there," Angela wrote. "There are some people who prefer to only offer things there (in the Recycle group) because there are people who can be pretty grabby in the bigger group."
Or, as Bytheway puts it: "I got embarrassed when people started asking for iPods."
So then, does Bytheway worry about these free items going to the greedy, not the needy?
"I know my moderators watch the yard sale groups, and if they see people selling items, they'll boot them for that," she said.
All in all, Bytheway says she's surprised the Free Items group stays together as well as it does, and she says folks are pretty generous.
For example, exercise equipment is popular on the free sites, and Bytheway says such items could be sold for, say, $100 on a classified-ads site.
"Sometimes, someone will post something they need, and I'll think, 'That'll never happen.' And then it does," she said. "I saw someone looking for a place for a friend to live, and somebody offered their home. That surprised me. Complete strangers, right?"
Like Angela, Michelle Bytheway knows what it's like to need a helping hand. She and her husband "are used to being at the bottom of the totem pole," and it all goes back, she says, to "the charity thing."
"Having been in the spot where you have to go and ask for charity, it's hard. This takes the humiliation out of it," Bytheway said. "It's nice to feel like it's not charity to ask for things. And it's nice to help others. It feels more like just exchanging clothes."
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