2022 Back 2 School Store – Another Huge Success

Empowering Essex County Children with Tools to Help Them Learn

On yet another 90-degree day, during yet another heatwave, visions of winter coats, hats and gloves rarely come to mind. That is, unless it is time for the annual NCJW/Essex Back 2 School Store (B2SS).  
For 14 consecutive years, the B2SS has served children in Essex County, empowering them with essential items to get ready to learn as they head back to class in a few weeks.  
“The Back 2 School Store is a massive undertaking that brings together every part of NCJW/Essex. We are so grateful to our Committee, the Board, our volunteers, our employees, our sponsors and donors, our partner agencies – and especially our families – for making the effort so fulfilling and fun,” said Rachel Khedouri, 2022 B2SS Co-Chair. “Back 2 School Store week is one of the best weeks of the year!”    

Assembling and distributing more than 1,000 customized bags and backpacks brimming with school supplies, along with making sure each child receives their individual package, is a feat worthy of the best planners around – and our whole team more than met the challenge. Armed with clipboards, color-coordinated neon stickers and eagle eyes focused on quality control, volunteers readied nearly all of the bags for pick-up by agency partners. With the help of buses provided by Essex County Transportation and an NCJW/Essex brigade of drivers, volunteers delivered the remaining bags to select agencies around the county. In total, 34 different agencies participated in the B2SS this year.

We were once again fortunate to work with the Bloomfield Health Department distributing bags at Bloomfield Fire Station #2. A parade of kids and their parents came by to choose a backpack – who knew turquoise would be such a popular color? – and collect their bags. We watched as the kids disappeared inside the oversized bag, which doubles as a laundry tote, diving in and checking out their new gear! 
“It has been a tough few years for many, and the feeling when you glimpse a bit of relief in a parent’s face and when you see the giant smiles on the kids’ faces as they show off their new treasures makes all our meetings, phone calls, work and sweat so, so worthwhile,” said Susie Botwinick, 2022 B2SS Co-Chair. “It’s nice to know that, even if for just a little while, we are helping to make the world a better place.” 
Our stellar B2SS Steering Committee works throughout the year, scouring stores and websites, seeking deals, and searching for just the right items. Then it is time for the Steering Committee to kick into high gear and set up the store in an empty retail space provided for the past two years by sponsor Eastman Management. Two Men and A Truck – and a determined group of NCJW/Essex volunteers – pushed, carried and unpacked hundreds of boxes filled with clothes according to size and gender, all to get ready for six very full days of sorting, packing, checking, re-checking and filling up a “Dream Big” bag with a brand-new winter coat, socks generously donated by Bombas, underwear, age-appropriate books, and personal care items. More than 150 volunteers, including teams from our sponsors, participated in the B2SS this year. We thank each of them for their time and dedication. 
This was the third year that the B2SS went “mobile” to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While having the kids onsite for their shopping experience was greatly missed, the team was able to take requests for favorite colors, sizes and other special touches, to make the bag of items as unique as each child.   
The Gaelen Family Resource Center morphed into a Family Resource bag distributed to each family, including a Guide to community resources and other informational material, along with menstrual products generously donated by Girls Helping Girls.Period. Our agency partners also told us that mental health was a big concern this year, so the Committee brainstormed and compiled a kit filled with stress relief tools for each child, including colorful squeeze balls, fidget spinners, pop-it keychains and other ways to put their minds at ease. 
“Mental health is such a critical issue, and it speaks to our team’s flexibility that we are able to quickly address the changing needs of the children we serve,” said Lori Gelman, 2022 Back 2 School Co-Chair. “Building the stress relief tools allowed us to flex our creative muscles and add something really important to the Back 2 School Store that we’re hopeful will serve as a template for the future.” 

If you would like to learn more or get involved, the 2023 Co-Chairs would love to hear from you, or contact volunteers@ncjwessex.org for more information.  If you would like to support the 2023 Back 2 School Store, click here.

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