Pack it up: Back to School! Store is on a different roll this year

National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis helped provide school essentials; clothes and other items to 2,000 St. Louis-area children during the organization’s annual Back to School! Store on July 19. This year was the 20th anniversary of the event. College Hunks Hauling Junk and Moving provided a distribution hub where volunteers picked up boxes of filled backpacks to deliver to partner agencies in the St. Louis area, which distributed the bags to clients and members.

Every summer, hundreds of underserved St. Louis children get much needed school supplies, personal care items and clothing  thanks to the National Council of Jewish Women’s Back to School! Store. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, the event looked a little different.

Usually, the kids, accompanied by an NCJW volunteer, get to select the supplies and clothes they want at a festive event. COVID-19 forced the St. Louis chapter of NCJW to rethink its plans and get creative. On Sunday, July 19, Back to School! Store celebrated its 20th anniversary with volunteers taking school supplies directly to the children.

The most significant adaptation was the distribution process. Pickup and delivery were contactless and socially distanced, meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines. Volunteers delivered the supplies to NCJW-STL partner agencies, which distributed the supplies to their clients and members.

The modified system meant that the volunteers could provide supplies to more kids than ever, according to Ellen Alper, CEO of NCJW-STL. 

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“We’re serving 2,000 kids this year,” Alper said. “That’s 500 more than what we planned to serve. But since we don’t have a physical space where we have to pay for security and other things, we took those dollars to buy more backpacks. So, from that perspective, the pandemic allowed us to serve more kids.” 

The school supplies were delivered inside the backpacks. An NCJW vendor filled the backpacks, eliminating one more contact. The contents included standard school supplies and some items that were chosen specifically because of the pandemic.

“We’re adding things like earbuds, since some homes have multiple kids working on their schoolwork from home and this will help them concentrate,” Alper said. “There’s also a math booklet, a word search book and a deck of cards, because not only do they need stuff to do other than schoolwork, but you can do math with a deck of cards. There’s modeling clay – that normally wouldn’t be on the school supply list, but kids need it now because they’re stuck at home.”

Volunteer drivers loaded the backpacks from a staging area at the College Hunks Hauling Junk & Moving campus. Each volunteer was assigned a specific time to get his or her boxes of backpacks and a drop-off location where clients picked up the supplies. 

“Everybody is social distanced, they’re staying six feet apart, wearing their masks, and it’s been amazing,” Alper said. “And it’s working!”

Typical of the process was NCJW-STL partner Soul Fisher Ministry, which serves the needs of youth with incarcerated parents and is located just east of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Jenny Abeles, a 15-year Back to School! Store volunteer, arrived at the agency Sunday about noon.

“It’s the best volunteer experience I’ve ever had, and I do a lot of volunteering,” Abeles said. “Normally, every year you get instant gratification because you see the smiles on the kids’ faces, but this is different. You know the kids are getting things they need. There’s such a need, and I’m happy to help out.”

Shawntelle Fisher, founder and CEO of Soul Fisher Ministry, said she typically would organize two busloads of kids to get supplies at the Back to School! Store. She was grateful for the ability to continue serving her clients.

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“I’m glad they were able to do something for our kids,” Fisher said. “The NCJW came up with a great plan. They were able to be supportive of the kids that they always serve.” 

In addition to school supplies, Back to School! Store’s other popular feature is clothing distribution. Before the pandemic, volunteers would accompany kids to assist them in trying on coats and shoes. NCJW-STL has already acquired the clothing, so the game plan is to distribute them through the organization’s Kids Community Closet program.

College Hunks Hauling has been a longtime behind-the-scenes participant in Back to School! Store. The St. Louis franchise is owned by Jewish husband and wife Gary and Kim Bussard. This year, the Bussards donated their space for staging and pickup.

“In the past, we brought all the goods to the one of the participating congregations,” Kim Bussard said. “Now, we get to do it all at our facility, which is awesome. It’s great to help out.” 

Traffic flow and staging were handled by NCJW-STL staff and volunteers. They included a trio of regulars: Judy Grosz and her daughters Heather and Ashley. 

“I’ve been in charge of volunteers for the Back to School! Store for many years,” Judy Grosz said. “A couple of years ago, I brought my daughters in to be cochairs, and now that I’m an overall chair, they’re going to head up the volunteers next year.”

The Grosz family directed a station wagon to its pickup spot. The delivery volunteer was Back to School! Store veteran and retired teacher Cheryl Martin, who said the arrangement was the best option during the pandemic.

“I volunteer every year, and this is a great way to contribute to these kids, who really need to get back to school in whatever way that’s going to look,” Martin said.

At College Hunks, Nancy Litz, vice president of NCJW-STL, greeted drivers with a welcome sign, a wave and a smile. She’s been a Back to School! Store volunteer for several years. It’s one of her favorite annual events because of its impact on education.

“What could possibly be more important than giving little kids the best possible start in life?” Litz asked. “Those early years are the foundation, and anything we can do to make it more positive is just one step in the right direction.”