WEST ORANGE, NJ — “I got the coolest stuff!” said one young boy running up to greet his father after attending the ninth annual NCJW/Essex Back 2 School Store on Sunday, July 30. “My new backpack makes me feel smart and important!” said another child. With walls completely lined with coats, rows of new sneakers, and racks and racks of clothing, the B2SS outfitted nearly 800 economically disadvantaged children with the help of 475 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 kicked off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for dignitaries and supporters of the store led by NCJW/Essex President Shari Harrison and aided by B2SS co-chairwomen Jill Sorkin Johnson of Montclair, Margie Zucker of Short Hills and Karen Cherins of West Orange. This year’s B2SS would not have been possible without major support from many individuals, foundations and corporations.
Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the store was opened to a long line of excited children, eager to enter and pick out new outfits, including pants, shirts, winter coats, gloves, socks, undergarments and hats. The children, referred by more than 30 social service agencies, were greeted by a personal shopper who led them on their shopping excursion. 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 and a backpack filled with personal care items and school supplies. New this year, each child also got to select a new book from the Tabak-Fass Book Nook, with all levels of books donated by Scholastic.
While the children shopped, parents and guardians visited the onsite Gaelen Family Resource Center. Lining the halls were organizations such as Advocates for Children NJ, the Essex County Family Justice Center, KinderSmile Foundation, the NCJW/Essex Center for Women, Planned Parenthood of Metro NJ and the Rachel Coalition, along with University Hospital, which offered free health screenings and health information.
“This is truly a great day,” said Sara Pena, senior community outreach coordinator at University Hospital. “We are excited about this partnership and our ability to provide services and support to the local communities.”
The cost of school supplies is often overlooked as a major annual expense. Families that are living in poverty struggle with the rising cost demands of public education. In Essex County alone, 22 percent of households with children lived below the poverty level in 2015. NCJW/Essex believes that no child should start off the school year already behind, and has put together the B2SS for the past nine years to meet this need.
“Being here makes me feel happy because a bunch of kids like me are able to get all new clothes and be excited about school together,” said one young boy in attendance. Another rising first-grader was so excited to pick out jeans, a sci-fi t-shirt and Velcro sneakers that he wore them home. “I wish I could come back every day,” said one little girl. “I just don’t like it here — I love it!”
Ranging from college freshman to grandparents, the passion each volunteer brought was undeniably visible through the smiles of hundreds of children who filled the store. With three shifts throughout the day, volunteers underwent specific training on how to optimize the shopping experience for each child. From picking out pens and calculators to help finding jeans with the perfect fit, the personal shoppers guided and encouraged each child through every step.
With shoes that fit just right and smiles from ear to ear, the children exited the store to be reunited with their parents.
“Thank you all so much,” said one mother departing with her son and daughter, shopping bags in tow. “We’ve come to this event for years and it never fails to give my kids the confidence and excitement they need to start off their school year right.”