NCJW helps 1,000 children during annual ‘Store’

Merle Oberman helps Chloe fill her new backpack during National Council of Jewish Women’s Back to School! Store, held on Sunday at Central Reform Congregation. For a gallery of images, visit www.stljewishlight.com. Photo: Kristi Foster

By Leanne Ortbals, Jewish Light Intern

As eight-year-old Malina browsed the Back-to-School! Store on Sunday, she wasn’t distracted by former Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan walking alongside. Malina’s only focus was the racks of clothes, shoes and school supplies packed into Central Reform Congregation from which she could choose.

Organized by the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), the annual Back-to-School! Store helps 1,000 children from low-income and needy families gear up for the upcoming school year. In-kind and cash donations from local companies, foundations, religious groups and individuals supported the store.

For a perfect first day of fourth-grade outfit, Malina picked out a pair of jeans, a pink top and girly-girl shoes. “I like the color of the shirt and the decorations on the shoes,” said Malina. Each child works with an adult volunteer to choose a new outfit, underwear, socks, shoes, a winter coat, school supplies, a backpack, toiletries, and a book. “My new clothes are my favorite,” added Malina. “It makes me excited for school.”

Carnahan helped Malina navigate the store. “I heard about the event last year and thought it was wonderful,” she explained. “The kids, the volunteers and assistant shoppers all seem to enjoy it.

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” It’s great that the kids can make the selections themselves. It’s incredible what the NCJW and all the volunteers have been able to do. They are serving the needs of the community,” she added.

Without the help of 500 volunteers, the Back-to-School! Store couldn’t operate. “We’ve been setting up since last Monday,” said volunteer and former co-chair Jenny Abeles. “It will also take a week to break it all down, but it’s worth it. Today has been seamless and I think it’s our most successful one yet.”

Abeles has been a part of the store for eight years. “I’m in charge of community outreach and finding donations from non-corporate sponsors like Sunday schools or preschools,” she said.

Amy Weiss has volunteered at the store since 2006 and manages the recycling and hospitality for the event. “We have so many cardboard boxes and collect car loads worth of recycling throughout the day. I also work to keep the volunteers fed and energized by organizing donated lunches the week before, the day of, and the week after. Every year we learn and grow. Now we have it down to a science.”

The thrill of the day isn’t only shared by volunteers and kids but also by the parents. “I’m excited to show my new stuff to my dad,” said nine-year-old Yaheed, whose father has been hospitalized for several months following a work accident. Yaheed’s mother shared in his excitement, “I don’t know what we would have done this year without coming to the store. This is a blessing and I’m brought to tears,” she said.

Besides picking out a great new book, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” Yaheed’s favorite part of the day was shopping with his volunteer. “I liked being away from my mom,” he said. Parents wait in a separate room to give the kids independence.

“I was a little nervous at first that (my children) weren’t with me,” said Yaheed’s mother, “but the result is fantastic. They picked out some very nice, quality things. Yaheed and his sister have everything they need now.”

For NCJW President Farilyn Hale, letting the kids pick out their own clothes and supplies is what makes the event worth it. “It’s all about giving the kids confidence to start school,” she said. “I love to take kids through and see the smiles on their faces. The kids can pick out all new items and a lot of them have never had new clothes before.”

Hale has been president of the NCJW since 2010 but has been with the organization for 30 years. “It’s my passion,” she said. “I remember my first time as a personal shopper. I was with a seven- year-old who had never had a new coat before. As soon as he picked one out he wouldn’t take it off. It was hot, too, just like today.”

Brought to tears by the memory, Hale returned to help another student, 10-year-old Allen, find a new shirt.

Hale wasn’t the only organizer who found herself crying at some point during the day. “It makes me cry to hear the stories about what the families are going through,” said Abeles. “It’s my favorite part to know this whole day is a hundred percent about the children.”