Look at those smiles!
A simple observation that resonated throughout the day at our 2023 Back 2 School Store. The rounders and racks came out again, and NCJW/Essex volunteers smiled brightly as they welcomed nearly 500 children on July 30 to our in-person, “pop-up” Store location at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.
Our welcome ambassadors greeted the children and their parents and caregivers, managing the flow of people from each agency, and looking the other way as a few peeked inside to see what awaited them. Personal shoppers (also known as our wonderful volunteers) stood ready, clipboards and tote in hand, to guide the children – who ranged in age from 5 to 11 – through the Store.
Hellos were exchanged, many in English and some in Spanish, hands grasped, and off they went. A few children appeared a bit apprehensive, but that melted away and their eyes widened as they surveyed the sheer volume and variety of pants, shirts and other gear. Many broke out into giant smiles as they chose the outfits just for them. Other children ran excitedly to the tables and stood on tippy toes as they reached into baskets for the perfect package of underwear. One girl skipped down the hall toward a table piled high with backpacks stuffed with school supplies – all for her!
The Back 2 School Store works with more than 40 different agencies across Essex County who register their clients to participate. The goal, as always, is to empower children and to support them as they head back to school. According to the National Retail Federation, the average cost of getting a child ready for school is almost $900. Thanks to generous sponsors and donors, each child left the Back 2 School Store with a brand-new winter coat, a new outfit, hats, gloves, socks, underwear, dental and other personal care items, a full backpack, and age-appropriate books – all chosen for and by the child.
While the children shopped, parents, caregivers and agency representatives visited the Gaelen Family Resource Center, learning about available services, health screenings gun safety and picking up two months’ worth of period products courtesy of Girls Helping Girls.Period., a long-time NCJW/Essex partner.
The Store marked its 15th anniversary in 2023 and it was the first in-person shopping experience since 2019. In a nod to lessons learned over the past pandemic years, a mobile component was incorporated into this year’s Store. Our shoppers shopped, selecting items based on input from an additional 500 children, and large laundry bags filled with all the items were given to multiple agencies for distribution.
For our 2023 Co-Chairs, Susie Botwinick, Elizabeth Brandwein Cohen and Danielle Kurlander, and a 30-member strong Steering Committee, months of planning culminated in a two-week sprint that kicked off with unloading the Back 2 School Store storage to setting up the Store, to executing a flawless event, to taking inventory of the few items that headed back to storage and closing the door on this year’s Store.
The Back 2 School Store is one of NCJW/Essex’s signature programs, and the one that brings together so many people and partners who care about making the world a little bit better than they found it. The powerful act of community that is the Back 2 School Store would not be possible without the passion displayed on Sunday, leading to the most satisfying ending of sending the children home with a smile, a wave and a “thanks for shopping, have a great school year!”