Dreams of a dreamer

Gisele Fetterman, center, laughs at a joke while folding donated clothing with volunteers Lena Bradel, left, of Turtle Creek and Melvenia Glover of Braddock at the Free Store, a donation-driven shop that provides clothing, food and other items to people in need, which Ms. Fetterman founded in 2012. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Gisele Fetterman aims to spread her community service statewide as second lady

First of an occasional series

The line of new and expectant mothers stretched a half block down Braddock Avenue by the time Gisele Fetterman opened the doors of a former-pharmacy-turned-business-incubator at 5 p.m. and welcomed in the smiling faces.

Inside was a mountain of baby equipment and supplies, still in their original packaging, free for the taking. The charity organization Delivering Good had dropped off 27 pallets of infant gear that morning — enough car seats, strollers and baby carriers to fill the beds of more than two dozen pickup trucks. It was time to give it all away at Braddock’s first community baby shower.

It took Ms. Fetterman and her volunteers more than eight hours to unload and sort the baby booty into piles. Larger pieces got stacked against a wall on one side of the room; baby books, clothes and blankets were piled high on a folding table on another, kitty-corner from where MAYA Organization handed out flyers about the nonprofit’s free services to pregnant women.

Gisele Fetterman helps her son August, 4, get ready for school at their home in Braddock. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

“It was my workout for the month,” joked Ms. Fetterman, 36, herself a mother of three, before rushing off to kiss a baby and envelop his excited mom in a hug.

Many politicians’ wives do good deeds for the communities they live in. Ms. Fetterman has rolled up her sleeves and gotten to work in her adopted town of Braddock from day one, and never slowed down. And she has big plans in her new role as Pennsylvania’s second lady after her husband, John, was sworn in as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in January.

Since moving to Braddock from New Jersey more than 10 years ago, she has become one of the struggling steel town’s staunchest activists and community leaders. The baby shower showcased her latest initiative, The Hollander Project, the incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs she co-founded last year.

In 2012, she established Free Store 15104, where residents in need can “shop” for slightly used clothes and household items and surplus food. In 2015, wanting to address the disparate problems of food insecurity and food waste, she co-founded 412 Food Rescue so that unwanted, perishable foods made its way into schools, shelters and charities instead of a Dumpster. For Good PGH, a nonprofit that works to advocate inclusion and inspire kindness, followed in 2017.

She doesn’t draw a salary for any of it.

Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Fetterman describes how she came to Braddock. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

It’s a contagious energy that has made the Brazilian “dreamer” who came to the U.S. undocumented at age 7 arguably more popular than Braddock’s longtime, larger-than-life former mayor — her husband John.

“She’s magical,” said Kristen Michaels, her partner at The Hollander. “She just believes things are going to work when everyone else is thinking about what can go wrong or how much work it will be.”

“She has an X-factor,” Mr. Fetterman agreed. “Her compassion and empathy has no filter, and people are drawn to that.”

She’s also fearless, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration.

After her husband was elected to office Nov. 6, she tweeted, “Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. Thank you.”

And at his inauguration on Jan. 15, she gave her fellow dreamers a visual shout-out by attaching a pin to the bow of her vintage-inspired dress. Handcrafted by Braddock-based Studebaker Metals, it reads “Immigrant” in flowing script.



'Going on an adventure'

Gisele Fetterman thought she was simply going on ''an adventure'' when her mother, Ester, asked her to help pack a suitcase in 1989. In reality, they were leaving Brazil to immigrate to the U.S. Here she is on her Brazilian passport. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Ms. Fetterman was in second grade when her mother, Ester Resende, came home from work carrying two suitcases. They were going on an adventure, she said, and Gisele and her older brother, Delfim, needed to pack. At the time, the family was living in Rio de Janeiro’s middle-class community of Jacarepagua in the West Zone, but it was close to one of the city’s largest slums. Her mom, who had divorced Ms. Fetterman’s father when Ms. Fetterman was just a baby, had decided to escape Rio de Janeiro’s never-ending violence after learning her sister-in-law Madalena had been robbed for a seventh time. Within days, they were on a plane to New York.

No one in her family spoke any English, so they had to rely on a friend of a friend to put them up in an extra bedroom while they searched for a cheap apartment. They ended up above a doctor’s office in Queens, where her mother — a nutritionist with a doctorate in Brazil — found work cleaning houses and working for tips as a coat check girl. They furnished the apartment with items their neighbors had discarded at the curb.

Gisele Fetterman spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She immigrated with her mother, Ester, and brother, Delfim, to the U.S. in 1989, when she was 7. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Gisele Fetterman visits the West Zone neighborhood she grew up in during an August 2018 visit to Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

At first, Ms. Fetterman found trash-picking puzzling; in Brazil, she said, nobody ever throws anything away. But soon enough, whenever they heard garbage trucks rumbling down the block, “that’s when we went shopping,” she said. Her mother, who moved to North Braddock to be close to her daughter and her family, still has some of those original pieces in her home.

Gisele Fetterman’s parents, Delfim Almeida and Ester Resende, pictured in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

In 1990, the family moved across the Hudson River to more affordable Harrison, N.J. Studies show that children of immigrants experience more poverty and don’t do as well in school. But Ms. Fetterman, who learned English by watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said her family always managed to get by because of her mother’s sacrifices, even if they had to be invisible and avoid the spotlight. Smart and hardworking, she was inducted into the National Honor Society in high school.

“Kids adapt,” she said.

Other than being teased occasionally about her “unibrow,” she had no problem making friends with other ESL students. She marched in her middle school color guard, acted in school plays and dipped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins after school and on weekends. But she was never completely at ease until she became a permanent resident in 2004. Until then, she knew she could be deported at any time. “You pay taxes and work so hard, so it was like, ‘What do you mean you won’t want us here?’” she said. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Her brother became an artist in New York City. She studied math at Kean University in New Jersey before deciding she’d really rather be a holistic nutritionist. She earned her degree at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition for Holistic Nutrition while also volunteering as a “hugger” at a home for babies going through withdrawal and feeding the homeless at a Salvation Army canteen in Newark, N.J.

“I always knew her future would be bright,” said her mother, because she’s a glass-half-full person. “She wears rose-colored glasses and wants people to see through those glasses.”

One person greatly influenced by Ms. Fetterman is Destinee Holmes, who met her when she was 10 through a Big Sister mentoring program in Newark. Ms. Holmes, who is studying criminal justice at Essex County College, still talks to her at least three times a week.

“She’s just a beautiful person who wants the best for you,” said Ms. Holmes, noting how she helped her navigate a skin disorder. “You can trust that she’ll always be there for you.”

After graduating from the institute in 2007, Ms. Fetterman worked as a nutritionist focusing on food justice and access. She often organized pop-ups where she distributed free furniture and other nonperishables that businesses had donated to Newark residents in need.

“I was food insecure growing up,” she said, “so knowing that even one less person isn’t is really special to me.”

A perfect fit

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gets help putting on his tie from his wife, Gisele Fetterman, in their hotel room before leaving for his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

It was a 2007 article in a magazine called ReadyMade that introduced her to Braddock. Relaxing at a yoga retreat, she read about the heavily tattooed mayor in shorts who was trying to revitalize a forgotten town. As someone who also had chosen to live and work in a town that many had written off, she felt a connection.

Gisele and John Fetterman on their wedding day in 2008. The couple eloped to Burlington, Vt., and picked a justice of the peace out of the phone book. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

“It stayed in my head,” she said, and so she wrote a letter to the borough about the work she was doing and how it might translate to Braddock. Impressed that somebody had actually taken the time to put pen to paper, Mr. Fetterman called and asked her to visit. She accepted, and a month later they were exchanging strategies and ideas at a reception at the library.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight. But there was something about the 6-foot-8 man that just felt … right. Mr. Fetterman felt it, too.

“She charmed everybody,” he said, including his parents, who were in town visiting.

Braddock, Ms. Fetterman decided, was nothing like the sad, abandoned town she’d read about. “It just needed more love.”

Their relationship blossomed, and they eloped to Burlington, Vt., in June 2008, picking a justice of the peace out of the phone book. On their wedding night, they discovered they were having a baby. Karl is now 10, and they also have Grace, 7, and August, 4.

To those who don’t know them, they make a most unlikely pair, and not just because the differences are so visually striking.

She easily tears up and is constantly kissing babies. He rarely cracks a smile in public.

Stylish, with a weakness for boots, she has amassed an enviable wardrobe of thrift store and sales rack finds that ensures she looks chic even when she’s handing out diapers. He wore cargo shorts to their wedding.

She was raised vegetarian and their kids don’t eat meat either. He loves a good cheeseburger.

And she’s happy to be the front woman for her many projects and events. An introvert, he’d much rather work quietly behind the scenes.

What makes the relationship work, they said, is a shared commitment to lending a hand to those who need it and passion for social justice. “He’s just good,” Ms. Fetterman said of her husband.

“She’s the real leader,” he insisted, adding, “I’m jealous everyone loves her, for good reason.”

A friend to everyone

Gisele Fetterman, with her daughter Grace, then 4 months, attends a 2011 protest to support breastfeeding in public. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

It’s virtually impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Ms. Fetterman.

“She just says ‘yes’ without thinking about what she’s committed us to?” offered Ms. Michaels, who worked with her on the Hello Hijab project at For Good Pittsburgh, which makes tiny hijabs for Barbie dolls to teach kids about religious and cultural differences.

Gisele Fetterman circled this tweet on her Instagram story to show some people’s reaction to her childhood as an undocumented immigrant. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

David Esch of Aspinwall said he learned everything he needed to know about Ms. Fetterman last year, when her Free Store volunteers won the Jefferson Award for Public Service Team. Rather than go up on stage with her team to accept the award, she stayed in the shadows, allowing them to bask in the limelight. “It’s just how she’s wired,” he said of her generosity.

On social media, she fields a lot of vitriol from posters criticizing the fact she’s an immigrant, he said, adding that it’s unbelievably offensive and hurtful. But after many tears, she’s learned not to take it personally, he said. Instead, she tries to get her detractors to understand her point of view. “She just wants to do her projects.”

Leonard Hammonds got to know her through the nonprofit Hammonds Initiative, which offers mentoring programs to at-risk youths.

He can’t wait for the rest of Pennsylvania to become acquainted with her as she looks to expand her programs as the state’s second lady. Free Store 15104 has already inspired nine spinoff locations, and she also is interested in criminal justice reforms, especially making children’s visits to inmate parents less traumatic by allowing them to wear street clothes and meet in a warmer visiting room.



She also supports her husband’s 67-county recreational marijuana listening tour and has made no bones about being a participant in the state’s new medical marijuana program because of her own back pain caused by two herniated discs. She tweeted on Feb. 15, “I was one of the 83,000. Thank you, @GovernorTomWolf.”

She doesn’t care if you hold the highest title or are homeless, Mr. Hammonds, of Penn Hills, said. “She treats everyone the same and looks for nothing in return.”

Baby shower volunteer Cathy Welsh of Turtle Creek pointed to her knack for organizing and getting community members to work as a team. She orchestrated the event in just a matter of days because she has such a large network of supporters and has a reputation for building bridges.

The Fettermans, from left, Karl, 9 at the time this photo was taken, John, Grace, 7, Gisele and August, 4, take a walk Jan. 8 on the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Not that it’s always about getting stuff. Ms. Fetterman also is very aware of people’s feelings and emotional needs, Ms. Welsh said, “even if it’s just a hug.” She got plenty after her 16-year-old son Jerame Turner was killed in a double shooting in November 2017.

Gisele Fetterman wears a pin that reads “Immigrant” before John Fetterman’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Living in the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap, about 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Ms. Fetterman said, would not have been appropriate for their family. So her husband is commuting back and forth. It’s been tough to squeeze in much “us” time between her volunteering and the kids’ various activities. Just the other day, Mr. Fetterman said, they slipped away for a lunch of summer rolls from Green Mango in Wilkins. “But we ate in the car,” he said.

There’s no defined role or handbook for the second lady of Pennsylvania, a title Ms. Fetterman playfully refers to as SLOP. So it’s hard to say what’s to come in 2019. She’d like to see a more honest dialogue about what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S., of course, so people won’t see her and others like her as “that illegal.” Greater opportunities for the residents of Braddock and other underserved, marginalized communities are also paramount.

And she’d like to affect the food environment legislatively, so no one ever has to go hungry.

“If she’s got it to give, she’s going to give it to you,” said Free Store volunteer Jeanette Embry. “She’s teaching us all how to be a better person.”

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.