Once an Undocumented Immigrant, Pennsylvania Town’s First Lady is Giving Back to Her Adoptive Home

Gisele Fetterman with family. Photo credit: Matthew Hodgman MN.

In 2007, when she was in her mid-twenties, Brazilian immigrant Gisele Fetterman read an article about Braddock, Pennsylvania. “I wrote a letter, and the mayor, John Karl Fetterman, wrote back,” she says. Her initial fascination with Braddock was sparked by a magazine article she read about the town. She learned that a lot of steel in the U.S. came from Braddock and other nearby towns, and that some local steel was used to build the Brooklyn Bridge. The mayor invited her to visit, and one year later, they were married. As First Lady of Braddock, Fetterman’s mission has been to spread kindness throughout her community. She started by founding The Braddock Free Store, a non-profit that helps Braddock families create comfortable homes, regardless of their socio-economic status. The Free Store provides close to 1,600 families a month with everything from barely used to new toys, clothing, household items, and furniture. It also provides a space for people to connect on a meaningful level.

The idea stemmed from when Fetterman was a young, undocumented immigrant living with her mother and younger brother in a one-room apartment in New York City. “We didn’t have anything, and my mother worked so hard just to pay the rent. It was hard to justify buying a dresser or a bed,” she says. “Walking around the city, we noticed a shocking trend. People would put their old furniture on the curb for the garbage men to take away. All of these things were perfectly usable and had a lot of life left in them.”

Immigrants offer a unique perspective and gratitude for this country others may take for granted. We are able to see value in places and in things that others may not see.

In addition to The Free Store, Fetterman also co-founded the 412 Food Rescue, as well as other local initiatives like the Positive Parking Signs Project, which counter-balances negative parking signs, like “Don’t Park Here,” with positive signs, like “Follow Your Dreams” and “More Hugs Needed.” She also started the Braddock Bench, which added benches to local bus stops. “I am able to do this work because of the unique perspective I have,” she says.

This perspective — as a former undocumented immigrant, who is now devoted to helping her city — is why Fetterman believes in immigration reform. First and foremost, she wants Congress to take a humane and compassionate approach to immigration that does not break families apart. “Braddock has a rich immigrant history,” she says, noting that she lives directly across the street from the local steel mill, originally built by immigrants. Immigrants offer a unique perspective and gratitude for this country others may take for granted. We are able to see value in places and in things that others may not see.

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