WEST ORANGE, NJ — Walls completely lined with new patterned backpacks, rows of brand new sneakers, and racks and racks of clothing — this was the scene at the National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County Section’s Back 2 School Store on Sunday, July 31, at B’nai Shalom in West Orange. The Back 2 School Store, in its eighth year, outfitted more than 700 economically disadvantaged children and utilized 470 volunteers. The children were able to shop cost-free for brand new attire, school supplies and personal care items, encouraging a well-equipped and confident start to the new school year.
The day began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for dignitaries and supporters of the store led by NCJW/Essex President Shari Harrison and Back 2 School Store co-chairwomen Lesley Greenstein, Jill Sorkin Johnson and Marjorie Zucker. This year’s Back 2 School Store would not have been possible without major support from more than 50 donors including individuals, foundations and corporations.
“The Back 2 School Store is one of the most amazing volunteer-led events I’ve ever seen,” Barbara Levadi of Livingston, who volunteered as a personal shopper, said in a press release. “It’s a fantastic day; so many children, so many volunteers, so well planned, everyone in good moods and working hard to bring on success for these children.”
Following the ribbon-cutting, the store was opened to a long line of excited children, eager to enter the store and pick out brand new outfits, which included pants, shirts, winter coats, sneakers, gloves, socks, undergarments and hats. The children, referred to the store through more than 30 social service agencies, were greeted by their own personal shoppers and then the children and volunteers began their shopping excursions. First stop: a hallway of colorful new backpacks! Then each child received a warm welcome into the 4,000-square-foot space, hosted at B’nai Shalom in West Orange. By the end of the spree, each child had a big bag of clothing in tow and a backpack filled with personal care items and school supplies.
“I just saw a little girl spin around and look in the mirror with a huge smile after trying on her new clothes,” NCJW/Essex member Brooke Lefferts of Maplewood, who has volunteered at the Back 2 School Store since its inception, said in the release. “We made her day and she is going to wear her newly picked out outfit on the first day of school. Every year I am amazed by the organization and the heart from NCJW/Essex and all the volunteers.”
The passion each volunteer brought was undeniably visible through the smiles of hundreds of children who filled the store. With three volunteer shifts throughout the day, each volunteer underwent specific training on how to optimize the shopping experience for the child in need. From picking out pens and calculators to choosing jeans with the perfect fit, the personal shoppers guided and encouraged each child through every step.
While the children “shopped” inside the store, parents and caregivers browsed the Gaelen Family Resource Center to pick up health and social service information from many different exhibitors.
Monica Hanna, a health educator from University Hospital and a participant in the Back 2 School Store for four years, said, “Each year we are excited to come and educate the parents on a variety of health issues including the risks of high blood pressure and the dangers of smoking. The turnout is awesome and the people are always very receptive, asking questions and getting involved.”
With shoes that fit just right and smiles from ear to ear, the children exited the store and were reunited with their parents and guardians. “This has been the best day of my entire life,” exclaimed one child as he departed the store.
Photos Courtesy of Lisa Blumert