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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Back 2 School Store in action, with volunteers helping children shop. (Credit: Ariella Shua)

Emma acquires new school supplies at the Back 2 School Store. (Credit: Ariella Shua)

A selection of sneakers, with a large variety of colors and sizes, that were purchased brand new by NCJW for the store. (Credit: Ariella Shua)

The Jewish communities of Essex and Bergen Counties are spending their summers giving back to children across New Jersey. Both the Essex Division of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) have been planning for months to provide school supplies and other necessary items to underprivileged children.

Nearly 1,000 children attended NCJW’s ninth annual Back 2 School Store on July 30. Open for over seven hours at B’nai Shalom in West Orange, the event was an opportunity for underprivileged children to “shop” for the upcoming school year for free. Children came in throughout the day, were matched with a volunteer personal shopper and were given time to go through the department store-like setup at their own pace.

Shari Harrison, president of the NCJW Essex County Division, said the decision to allow kids to select their own items was deliberate. “We’re giving them the experience,” she said, as many of the children have never before had the opportunity to pick out these items themselves. She explained that the Back 2 School Store is the largest of its kind throughout the country. The children, recommended to NCJW through different agencies, are all going into kindergarten through fifth grade. Because of this program, the children were given the opportunity to select their own clothing, school and hygiene supplies, and sneakers.

While their children shopped, parents were welcomed into the Gaelen Family Resource Center. Several different organizations had set up information booths in the center, and parents were able to meet with representatives from all of the different groups.

These parents were provided with more than just information. Sara Pena, a representative from University Hospital, explained that her organization provides blood pressure, glucose, vision and healthy-heart screenings; oral health education; and a women’s clinic for the parents. University Hospital has been providing health care at the event since NCJW reached out to them seven years ago. Each year, they meet over 400 parents, who were able to use the services provided at the event at no cost to them. Additionally, as parents signed in when they went through the booths, University Hospital often followed up with them throughout the year. “Kids come from the urban areas that we serve,” Pena explained. “That’s why follow-up is so important.”

A similar event will be taking place at JFNNJ on Wednesday, August 16. Called Supplies for Success, the event is a supply drive that stuffs and delivers backpacks for underprivileged children who would otherwise not have backpacks or supplies for school. The event takes place both online and in person—for the month before the drive, volunteers can donate $18 or more online to provide a backpack and supplies. At the drive itself, volunteers help pack the bags at the Federation building. Recipients of the backpacks are invited to the event to receive their bags, while volunteers deliver the bags to those who cannot attend.

Beth Figman, director of volunteer services for JFNNJ, explained that “part of the mission is to help those in need—not just the Jewish community, but the community at large.” Federation has connections with agencies that refer children from across northern New Jersey, and also is in touch with Jewish Family Services, which makes sure that backpacks are also going to Jewish children in need.

This year marks the first time that the event will be co-run by JFNNJ, Bergen Volunteers and AngelWish. Lynn Algrant, CEO of the Bergen Volunteer Center, explained that her organization helped Federation when they began Supplies for Success in 2015, but that this year they decided to be partners to allow them to reach the largest number of children.

The Supplies for Success drive is unique in that it allows people of all ages to get involved, from anywhere in the world. Shimmy Mehta founded AngelWish as a way to allow people who could not volunteer in person to be able to donate online. He said about the drive, “It’s a really great way to have people roll up their sleeves, pitch in and pack up the backpacks.” For those who can’t make the event in person, “they can grant the wish online by donating a backpack.” He added that children often get involved in the donation as well, by going online with their parents to help pick out the supplies that will be gifted.

Algrant agreed, “The bag stuffing is really a family event. It’s nice to see kids helping out other kids.”

Both events are growing in size each year. Figman explained that Supplies for Success initially donated 550 backpacks. This year, 1,360 backpacks with supplies will be donated and packed. The 2017 NCJW Back 2 School Store saw nearly 1,000 children, 500 volunteers and hundreds of parents registered to attend. A new “bookstore” addition allowed children to pick out books for the first time.

“Nobody is alone,” Rabbi Robert L. Tobin, spiritual leader of B’nai Shalom, remarked before the children began to shop, “and nobody is without dignity.” This, he implied, was the gift that NCJW was giving to the 1,000 children who would attend the event. Figman agreed. “It is part of tikun olam—we have a Jewish value to repair the world and help when we can. This is something that everyone can relate to.”

By Ariella Shua

 Ariella Shua is a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School and the Nativ Program in Israel. She is a rising freshman at Johns Hopkins University and a Jewish Link summer intern.