One person is looking for a rocking chair for a newborn baby. Another, a tote bag to carry a pet guinea pig. One person offers up a nearly new yoga mat; another, a "large-ish cardboard box" that is "not sturdy enough for shipping but great for summer fun with kids."
Welcome to Freecycle, a grassroots "cyber curbside" where people can drop off unused items and others can pick them up -- for free.
As an environmentally motivated, volunteer-based nonprofit, Freecycle sets itself apart from other similar websites, such as Craigslist, said the organization's founder, Deron Beal.
"Some people view Freecycle as a cyber curbside, and other people view it as a Craigslist with a heart," he said. "It's the volunteers that keep that heart part. They throw out spam and make it as easy as possible to give items away in a local community. That's part of our mission -- to make it easier to give something away than throw it away."
Ten years ago, Beal was working for a recycling nonprofit in Tucson, Ariz. He said he had a warehouse full of non-recyclable stuff to give away and that his boss told him he needed to figure out a quick way to do it. He set up a Yahoo group, called it Freecycle and "off it went," he said.
"I sent out that first email on May 1, 2003, to 30 friends and a handful of nonprofits. In a year, we had 100,000 members. It grew really fast," Beal said.
Within a couple months, Beal traded the Yahoo group for Freecycle.org and started taking on volunteer moderators to monitor groups in communities beyond Tucson, such as Palo Alto. Freecycle has evolved into a massive re-use network that prides itself on saving space in landfills, making it easier to turn one man's trash into another's treasure and creating community.
Freecycle is not the only such group in Palo Alto. There's also PAFree, also known as Palo Alto Free, an older online exchange that operates through Yahoo groups. But they both distinguish themselves from more general sites like Craigslist.
One Palo Alto freecycler said he prefers Freecycle to Craigslist because the moderators vet users and regulate posts, if necessary. This means a safer network and less spam.
"You get so much spam after you post something" on Craigslist, said Daniel Ross-Jones, associate pastor at the First Congregational Church of Palo Alto. "Whereas this, I didn't receive anything."
Ross-Jones recently purchased a new couch and didn't want to deal with moving the old one, so he posted an "offer" on Freecycle. The next day, a fellow freecycler said he would take it off his hands.
"I'm certainly thinking of other ways I can freecycle," Ross-Jones said, using what now seems to be a well-established verb in Palo Alto. "There are things in our (church) building that we're no longer using that might be useful to somebody else."
One of those somebodies is Sadie Struss, a teacher at AchieveKids, a nonprofit school in Palo Alto that serves children aged 5 to 22 with emotional and/or developmental disabilities. Struss said she relies on Freecycle to get clothes and supplies for her students.
On Wednesday, she posted a "wanted" note in the Palo Alto group titled "old pots/pans for mud pie kitchen."
"I am trying to create a mudpie kitchen in my student's back yard," her post reads. "I would love any old metal bowls, measuring cups, muffin tins etc. I really appreciate it!" She said another user replied and promised to drop off metal muffin tins the same day.
Struss has used Freecycle to pick up clothes, rain boots, a bookshelf, books, craft supplies, scooters, bike helmets, balls, a soccer goal and volleyball net. Clothes, books or toys that a 6-year-old has outgrown and has no use for can easily be put in constant use at AchieveKids, she said. The same goes for discarded household items that Struss can reimagine a purpose for in her classroom.
"Because we're a nonprofit, there's not a lot of funding for things," Struss said. "I've really relied on Freecycle a lot to stretch the budget that we do have to give these kids what they need."
Struss said that many of her students exhibit extreme behavior and come from difficult backgrounds, dealing with issues such as homelessness and hunger. She said that providing basic things for them, such as rain boots or a crafts project, makes a difference.
"I go crazy when I see rain boots for cheap at Goodwill. You want them to be able to play in the rain. You want them to be able to be kids."
Freecycle founder Beal has a go-to analogy to explain just how much gets recycled through the network: The amount of items posted on Freecycle in the past year is more than 14 times the height of Mount Everest, Earth's tallest mountain. He said that is approximately the equivalent of one less landfill on the planet.
Freecycle hosts groups in more than 110 countries. There are separate groups -- which all require membership approval by the group moderator -- for Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park.
Meanwhile, PAFree, the Yahoo group started in 2003, also serves as a digital drop-off and pick-up point for unused stuff in the area.
PAFree operates under a similar set of basic rules -- everything must be free, no offers of money are allowed; no solicitations or spam, be courteous and considerate to other members.
Jeanie Smith, one of PAFree's four moderators, said that the main difference between Freecycle and PAFree is that -- as a smaller community group rather than an international organization -- PAFree can be more flexible about posts.
"Freecyle.org has very strict rules about what can be posted and what can't. It has rules that are applied nationwide and all the moderators observe those rules very strictly," Smith said.
Smith and the other three moderators take postings "more on a case-by-case basis," she said. They have allowed posts that Freecycle would not, such as a litter of kittens.
But she said that the two groups coexist "pretty peacefully" -- despite a kerfuffle over rights to the word "freecycle" some years ago. Many of PAFree's 3,785 members also belong to Freecycle's Palo Alto group. Smith said members often cross-post items in both groups to "maximize the possibility of either getting something that they need or getting rid of something they want to get rid of."
One Palo Alto Freecycle moderator, Pauline Morrison, has volunteered for five years and has lived in Palo Alto since she was 10 years old. She said she checks the website about three times a day for 15 to 20 minutes to take out addresses or phone numbers and edit posts if needed.
Morrison said she doesn't freecycle much herself anymore, but "you never know" what kind of offer might call your name.
Similarly, Struss said she recently saw a post for old wine corks and wondered what someone could use them for. Then she saw a Pinterest post for a craft project that turns corks into stamps.
"We end up doing a lot more than education here, and Freecycle can help with that." Struss said.