Helping kids get ready to start school

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Six-year-old Madison chose a Hannah Montana winter jacket. Quintin, 9, sported his new red wool hat. “I wanted a bright color,” he said, smiling. Jessica, 8, was delighted to have her own big bottle of shampoo while another 8-year-old, Ashoray, who was shopping for “all things pink,” proudly displayed a new pair of pink tennis shoes.

These children were among the 950 youngsters who took part in the ninth annual Back-To-School! Store, a project of the National Council of Jewish Women. More than 35 social service agencies, churches and community service organizations worked with NCJW to select the children who participated in the event, held Sunday at Central Reform Congregation.

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“The demand this year has been overwhelming,” said Nancy Weigley, NCJW-St. Louis program director. “But now these kids can go to school with a little more self-confidence, a little boost to their self-esteem. We’re planting a little seed to send them in the right direction.”

Staffed by more than 500 volunteers, the event was set up like a department store. Parents relaxed in nearby waiting rooms as adult volunteers helped children ages 5 to 10 shop for back-to-school outfits, winter coats, shoes, socks and underwear, personal care items, a backpack, books and school supplies. Everything was new, and everything was free.

Patterned on a similar event in Green Bay, Wisc., the first local event was held in 2001. Some 200 children took part, said Ellen Alper, executive director of NCJW-St. Louis. Since then, the Back-To-School Store has assisted more than 4,000 elementary school students.

Jenny Abeles, Karen Goodman and Andrea Newstead – all NCJW volunteers – served as co-chairs for this year’s event. The Clarkson Eyecare Foundation provided free vision screenings. Dr. Jeff Dalin, from Give Kids a Smile (an organization committed to delivering dental services to underserved children) handed out toothbrushes as he talked with children and their parents about good dental practices.

The Tooth Fairy–who resembled Glinda the Good Witch (from the Wizard of Oz) except for that wand with a big tooth on the tip–mingled in the crowd with other costumed characters. Cardinals’ mascot Fredbird was spied miming his dismay at finding a Boston Red Sox notebook in a stack of school supplies.

In addition to the Back-to-School Store, the NCJW provides families with programs on child safety, nutrition and other health issues throughout the year. “The NCJW is amazing,” said Genita Fields, a youth worker at Mount Beulah Missionary Baptist Church. “This event is a fellowship of people of different cultures and backgrounds, and our children look forward to it every year. They really like getting a personal shopper, and picking out whatever they want.”

Kameron, 10, plays basketball and football, so he was determined to find athletic shoes that fit just right. Randy Brown, owner of New Balance stores here and in Kansas City, was on hand with four of his staff members to make sure Kameron and the other children did just that. The social service agencies, institutions and organizations provide the children’s correct sizes ahead of time.

The shoes, clothing and school supplies all are donated or paid for with grant money or contributions to the NCJW. Major sponsors for this year’s event were Central Reform Congregation and The Harvey Kornblum Foundation. Additional sponsors included Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation, NB Web Express, the Staenberg Family Foundation, St. Louis Cardinals Community Fund, Clarkson Eyecare Foundation, Deaconess Foundation, First Book – St. Louis, Give Kids A Smile, KMOX, Leeds, Inc. and U.S. Bank Corp.

Though this year’s event is over, NCJW is still seeking individual donations in any amount. A contribution of $150 completely outfits one child shopping at the store. For more information, call 314-993-5181.

Heading for the exit with a big bag of clothes and school supplies, Kahlila, 9, reported that she was happy with her shopping experience. Her favorite item? A book on Rosa Parks. Kahlila’s mother beamed at her daughter. “As long as she’s happy,” she said, “I’m happy.”