Gisele Barreto Fetterman Has an Inherent Need to Do Good

The Senator’s wife and founder of three (!) nonprofits opens up to InStyle about community building, her philanthropic endeavors, and that time she asked President Biden for the famous Air Force M&Ms.

Everybody's In: Gisele Baretto Fetterman

Courtesy of Gisele Baretto Fetterman

You may know Gisele Barreto Fetterman’s name thanks to her husband’s landmark election win for Democrats in Pennsylvania during the midterms in November. In case you missed it, John Fetterman beat the Trump-backed celebrity personality Dr. Mehmet Oz (even after suffering a stroke) to turn the state blue. 

But make no mistake, the mother-of-three (five, if you count their rescue pups, Levi and Artie), newly appointed firefighter, thrifting queen, former undocumented immigrant, and fiercely passionate activist is far more than a senator’s wife. For starters, she has an expansive résumé of her own, chock-full of impressive feats and job titles, including founder of several nonprofits. 

Barreto was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but moved to the United States with her mother and brother when she was just 7 years old. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, where Barreto became a self-proclaimed dumpster diver, bargain hunter, and curb shopper to survive while their mother took on cleaning jobs to make a living. (To this day, she says the furniture in her home is curb finds, and she’s committed to wearing recycled and thrifted clothing.) Eventually, in 2004, Barreto received her green card before officially becoming a U.S. citizen in 2009. 

She credits her upbringing and past with inspiring the issues she’s so passionate about today (“I say my work is always born from pain,” Barreto shares on a phone call in December). After meeting Fetterman in 2008 and moving to Braddock, Pa., Barreto created several non-profits to benefit the greater Pittsburgh area, including the Free Store 15204 (which donates unwanted household items to those in need), 412 Food Rescue (an organization that distributes surplus food from grocery stores to other nonprofits and food pantries), the Hollander Project (which supports female entrepreneurs), and For Good PGH (an umbrella foundation that houses all of Barreto’s initiatives, like the Fairy Fund which gives $250 emergency grants to six Pittsburgh families a month). Barreto also recently became a volunteer firefighter, which she was moved to pursue after a house fire years ago in New Jersey killed her neighbors at the time. 

If I can't bring you with me, I'm not going.

It was her philanthropic efforts combined with Fetterman’s “experiment” as mayor of Braddock that turned the once desolate former steel town into an up-and-coming neighborhood for artists, merchants, and restaurant owners. Even Levi Strauss & Co. (yes, the jean company) caught wind of the Fettermans’ work and shot a $55 million ad campaign titled Ready to Work, which cast locals as models, and funded a community center and playground in the heart of Braddock. Hence the cheeky name of the family’s dog.

In addition to the organizations she founded and runs, Barreto has also upheld her responsibilities as the First Lady of Braddock and the Second Lady of Pennsylvania when Fetterman was elected lieutenant governor. She frequently attends local community events and bigger commitments, like the White House Easter Egg hunt, alongside her husband and their family. But Barreto was also determined to do things differently — proving just how dedicated she and her husband were to staying true to their roots. For instance, the latter title came with a swanky mansion with a pool for the family to move into. But Barreto and Fetterman decided to forgo their new living arrangements and instead opened up the pool to the public, primarily their neighbors in Braddock, a move on par with her motto: "If I can't bring you with me, I'm not going."

This is Everybody’s In, a celebration of people making the world a better place for everyone in 2023. You’re ‘in’ if you’re making an impact. Read on to see who’s with you.

Given her extensive charitable ventures and advocacy work in her town, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Barreto’s community is at the forefront of everything she does. But the way she harks back to the notion throughout our conversation is proof enough. She speaks about her neighbors in Braddock with a familial sense of pride.

“That's what community is,” she explains. “It's knowing that you have someone, or five someones, that you can call on, that you can ask for help, that you can share good news with, or that you can invite over to your house.”

Read on to learn more about the causes Barreto champions, what “Everybody’s In” means to her, and that time she asked President Biden for a box of those famous Air Force One M&Ms.

Tell me about your numerous foundations. What inspired you to create them?

I always say, "How do you respond to something painful?" I would say my three nonprofits are all based on either personal experiences, personal pain, or pain that I saw within my community or with folks that I love. 

Free Store 15204 was born because when I came to this country as a young immigrant, I was a dumpster diver in New York, and I did all my shopping for furniture from the curb in New York. The Free Store was the first [of its kind] in the country. We've since inspired nearly 20 locations across the country, and we've rescued hundreds of thousands of tons of everything, from clothing and food to diapers and formula. We've served nearly 420,000 families and individuals during the past 10 years.

Seeing the surplus in the grocery stores was really shocking, so 412 Food Rescue [used] the model we had at the Free Store, but created a way that would make it more accessible to a lot more people and would engage grocery stores and retailers. The vision was that it would be like Uber, but instead of moving people from place A to B, it would move rescued food and get it into hungry bellies instead of landfills. For Good Pittsburgh was born as an umbrella where I wasn't just rescuing food or items. I really love when I can be creative and do something, where I'm not just not working to fix a policy failure or support a local need.

It all comes down to: Who is left behind or forgotten? Who can we make sure is part of the conversation?

What does community building look like to you?

I think community is knowing your neighbor. I can tell you who just had a baby, what size of diaper they're on, who's just lost a spouse or lost a job. For me, it's feeling like this entire community is part of my family. I think I have 14 godchildren in Braddock. 

What are some other causes that are close to your heart?

Immigration is really important to me, the planet, the environment, the climate, but I think it all comes down to: Who is left behind or forgotten? Who can we make sure is part of the conversation? 

Rights like abortion access and marriage equality are currently being threatened. How do you plan to use your platform to fight for these rights?

I really want to find my space as a Senate spouse. It's a very new world to me, but I think that any platform comes with an immense responsibility. I was a clinic escort. I've always been very outspoken on the [need] to protect these rights. And marriage equality — I always say there's no wrong way to love. I hope to find my way to be able to advocate for these causes in this new space.

You recently met President Biden. What did you speak with him about?

I think I'm constantly taking it all in and definitely [have] no chill. The first thing I asked was, "I heard about these M&M's. Is it true?" And he was like, "Here, take a box." So, I'm like, "I won't say no to that." But he's a great listener. He and John spoke a lot about the big issues. At that time, marijuana legalization and decriminalization. But I was grateful to have him in town, of course. For me, it's always kind of surreal to be in spaces I never dreamt of or imagined myself in.

Has there been a recent “pinch-me” moment where you’ve seen your and John’s hard work come to fruition?

Seeing John win all 67 counties in the primary, that was surreal because we traveled this entire state and visited every county multiple times. [His campaign] shirts said “every county, every vote,” and the fact that he won every county, that was pretty surreal. 

What are some ways that you bring people into your mission? How do you make it a priority to include all people?

My volunteers at the Free Store are all from the community. I think it's really important that when someone comes, they see themselves and who's helping them. They see a neighbor. They see a cousin. As I find myself in spaces I never thought I'd be in, I'm constantly looking [around] and thinking, who is missing? So, it's how I enter the conversation. It's how I enter rooms. My motto is, "If I can't bring you with me, I'm not going."

What does Everybody's In mean to you?

It means leaving no one behind. It means that there's a space for everyone, and sometimes it may not be easy to find that space for them, but it is our duty to ensure that everyone has a space, a voice, and a platform. We can't have missing voices, or we'll never get the full experience. We'll never be able to learn and challenge ourselves and grow.

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