Free toy store in Nashville gives families the dignity of choice while shopping for holiday gifts

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — When country music star Brad Paisley and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, helped create a free grocery store in Nashville, Tennessee, their goal was to give families in need the ability to choose their own food in a place that felt like a normal store.

This year, The Store is offering that same dignity of choice to parents looking for gifts for the holiday season. During a two-day event starting Friday, 400 families will shop at a free toy store, stocked with brand new toys, video games, stuffed animals, scooters, clothes, makeup and musical instruments.

“The emotional aspect of being able to give your child something your child wanted versus just something to sort of get you through the holidays, that’s such a load off the minds of somebody who maybe didn’t think they were going to be able to do that,” Paisley said.

Nashville resident Stephanie Brodie got enrolled at The Store when she was a caregiver to her mother and they both enjoyed getting to shop for the foods that they needed for their diets. Her mom has since passed and now she's taking care of five grandchildren, including four under the age of 15.

On Friday, Brodie and her granddaughter La’Delegant Hartsfield picked out armloads of toys, musical instruments, beauty products and clothes for the family on Friday, a much-needed blessing when she's trying to save money to replace a broken stove this year.

“It’s a very much dignified process and it gives you the freedom of choice," said Brodie, who wore a paisley print dress in honor of the Paisley family. “So we have choice in what we present to our children. And we have choice in what we feed and put on the table, which of course empowers you.”

The Paisleys got a sneak peak on Thursday before the free toy store opened, marveling over the stacks of gifts, wrapping station, Christmas trees and holiday decorations. Volunteers and staff from Belmont University and The Store spent hours unpacking and organizing all the donated toys into sections and decorating while listening to Christmas music.

The celebrity couple brought the idea of a free grocery store to Nashville after seeing the concept years ago at the Unity Shoppe in Santa Barbara, California. When The Store launched in early 2020, it was just weeks after a tornado hit the city and before the global pandemic made food access an immediate problem.

The Store and its staff adapted, turning into a food delivery service for older people and delivering a million meals in the first year of operation. The Store has an enrollment process each year, and to qualify, a household’s total annual income has to be at 200% or below the federal poverty line. In addition to the free groceries, Belmont University, where Paisley graduated, now offers additional services to low-income families, including financial literacy events, music therapy and medicine management.

“People come on hard times and we want this to be a safe, welcoming place for everybody, whether you’re volunteering or whether you’re needing the services," Williams-Paisley said. "It’s just a community and we’re all in it together.”

Brodie said The Store and Belmont gave her a bridge to resources she needed, whether it was a cooking class or homework help, especially when taxes, inflation and real estate prices have made it harder to live in Nashville.

“I love Nashville. I don’t want to get pushed out. And this has afforded me to be able to stay here for another year," Brodie said.

The Store received about 2,000 donated items, about half of which came from the Nashville area and the other half from First Responder's Children's Foundation, and raised $20,000. Parents will be able to drop off their kids at a church next door, where they can play and drink hot chocolate while the adults shop and get gifts wrapped.

There are plans for the toy store to become a recurring event, but Williams-Paisley noted The Store would need year-round donations to keep people fed.

“We’re still not serving everybody that we want to serve. Food insecurity is on the rise. The USDA just released its report saying 17 million households in this country are facing food insecurity and that’s on the rise from 2021," Williams-Paisley said. “There’s so much we want to do. And really like the toy store has shown us that we can keep going and we can keep expanding and growing.”

Paisley admits this is his favorite season of the year, even suggesting he might show up at the toy store in a Santa costume.

“I live for this time of year," Paisley said. "Ever since we’ve had children and possibly even before, I kind of go all out.”