Annual ‘Store’ outfits kids for school

BY ARIANA TOBIN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“What’s your favorite color?” Hershey Moss asks his new client, Mohammed, 7, as they approach the heaping display of backpacks. “Do you like camouflage?”

“Red,” Mohammed replies, looking ahead to the racks of winter coats.

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Moss digs through the pile, but his wife Susan, shopping nearby, calls out to warn him that he’s looking in the girls’ section.

“Well, we can’t have that,” Moss says. “How do you feel about green?”

This scene, in various incarnations, played out all over the auditorium at Central Reform, Congregation on Sunday, at the National Council for Jewish Women – St. Louis Section’s 8th Annual Back to School Sale. By the time doors closed that evening, 875 local children from low-income families had each received approximately $150 of back to school merchandise, chosen with the assistance of more than 400 volunteer “personal shoppers.”

Mohammed, who will start second grade at Woodward Elementary in St. Louis, likes basketball and books about the moon. With Moss’ help, he found a pair of red basketball shoes, which he stored in a bag with a red winter coat, a red hat, and some red folders, which he will take home and save for the fall.

“I think the difference with this program is that the kids get to choose. You can donate any time you want, but it’s more rewarding because they get to pick what will make them feel good. If students don’t go back to school feeling good, they may not do as well,” steering committee member Stacy Abeles said.

As one of the larger events put on by the NCJW’s Community Service division, the four co-chairs (Karen Goodman, Dana Gaby, Anna Poger, and Jenny Abeles) and their steering committee need a year to transform CRC into a department store. They buy most items retail through donations from private individuals and corporate sponsors. On opening day, the sanctuary has everything from dressing rooms to a stock of brand new shoes, toiletries, books, school supplies, hats, gloves, and racks upon racks of clothing.

“We start shopping at the end of the season in order to be able to give the children a selection that’s updated and fashionable. We don’t want to give them the things no one else wanted, like last year’s action figure. It’s about sending them to school with self-esteem,” Goodman said.

The NCJW partners with 33 different agencies, such as the International Institute and Feed My People, which in turn advertises to families with children between the ages of 5 and 10. As long as students qualify for free or reduced meal plans, they are invited to shop. NCJW planners do not know how many children will come until a month before, which means they may have to scramble to supplement certain sizes.

“It’s sad to know so many children need the Back to School Store. And this isn’t even a blip on the radar of how many really need these services. But, I have to say, it’s rewarding to know we can do something to make a difference,” Weigley said.

Students come from all over the city, often accompanied by family members. Though younger siblings are not eligible for the sale, they receive hand-knitted dolls from the members of NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community).

“It’s going really well this year,” Gaby said. “There have been less no-shows. With the economy the way it is, we think it might be less than [the usual] twenty percent.”

To make the back to school effort comprehensive, students also receive a free eye examination and dental advice. A Delta Dental Tooth Wizard and a Dental Panda mingled among personal shoppers and their clients, asking children whether or not they had brushed their teeth that morning. When Mohammed replied that he had, the Panda gave him a high-five.

According to Nancy Weigley, Program Director for the NCJW, the Back to School Store began in Green Bay, Wis. In St. Louis, the event began in 2000 with 200 children. It has grown each year, and organizers aim to serve 1000 students by their tenth anniversary in 2010.

“Getting volunteers hasn’t been a challenge. We advertise to our membership, and a lot of people come. And we bring our families, especially the people on the steering committee. My whole family is here,” Goodman said.

Many volunteers return year after year. By the end of the shopping experience, NCJW St. Louis President Sally Katzif says the students leave with more than a restocked backpack.

“That’s the best part of this whole project. The personal attention. When the children start off, they might be shy, but by the end they have a relationship. At the end, almost every personal shopper gives them a hug. It’s a bond. Some of these children never get one-on-one shopping experiences. They might go with siblings or cousins, but here it’s all new, it’s all for just them,” Katzif said.