Preparation starts early for NCJW’s Back to School Store

Volunteer Leslie Bursack helps Timothy, 10, try on a pair of gloves during the 2009 National Council of Jewish Women’s annual Back-to-School Store. The event provided more than 800 children with clothes, shoes, coats and school necessities.

By Kate Gaertner, Jewish Light Staff

Last week, a diverse pocket of the Jewish community gathered at Amy Fenster Brown’s house to carry thousands of school items in plastic bags from Brown’s basement to moving trucks for the National Council of Jewish Women’s 10th annual Back to School Store. From the teenage boys who lifted bags stuffed with heavy winter coats to the elderly women who stood outside playing with small children, one thing was unanimous: Everyone was smiling.

For this year’s co-chairs, Andrea Newstead, Karen Silverman and Liz Kruvand, running the Back to School Store is more than just a service project, it’s a way of bringing people together. Newstead estimates that this year’s Back to School Store-which provides each of the children who go through it with a backpack, socks, shoes, a winter coat, hat, gloves, school supplies and a book-will raise over $150,000 and reach over 1,000 families. But for Newstead, Silverman, Kruvand and the over 70 volunteers who help out with the event preparations, the hard work begins long before NCJW’s personal shoppers go through the sale with each child. The day of the sale, some 500 volunteers will take part.

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“We start preparing for each sale immediately after the previous year’s is finished,” Silverman said. “A lot of it is outreach-we have to make sure that we get the members of the community that we need on board. We probably send about 20 emails a day, on a slow day.”

Newstead’s mother, Sherri Newstead, has been on the committee for seven years and has watched the event evolve into this year’s six-figure fundraiser. According to Sherri Newstead, the event grew because of the connections that its volunteers were able to make-from securing donations of catered food from Schnucks and Dierbergs to soliciting Nordstrom to give old shoe-shapers.

“We were able to provide the things we did because we made phone calls. A lot of businesses had community outreach departments, and we were able to take advantage of the connections we had in the community so that these children could benefit from them,” Sherri Newstead said.

The school-aged children who attend the event-each of whom is identified as underserved and pre-selected by one of several area charitable agencies-are given a “personal shopper.” This shopper is actually a NCJW volunteer who goes through the sale with them to help choose the clothes and school supplies they take home. According to Andrea Newstead, this independence helps to excite children about the upcoming school year and encourages school attendance by truly making the experience of shopping for school supplies their own.

“The kids are so excited because they have so many choices,” Newstead said. “You see some kids who are so excited-even the boys, who don’t normally get excited about things like clothes, you can see it in their eyes.”The co-chairs make sure to overstock the clothing, much of which is donated by stores like Burlington Coat Factory, to make sure that there is an ample array of sizes and styles for the children to pick from. For Silverman, watching the children’s excitement when they pick out their outfits is the most rewarding part of the sale.

“The sale happens at the hottest part of the summer, but sometimes the children leave wearing their winter coats because they don’t want to take them off, because they love them. It may be their first winter coat they’ve had that was new to them. It’s truly awesome to watch,” Silverman said.

While the children pick their outfits, their families can consult the Family Resource Center, which gives them information about child safety, nutrition, vision screening and health issues, among other things. This year’s Family Resource Center is made possible by the community outreach programming of Clarkson Eyecare, Delta Dental and other local health organizations.

According to Sherri Newstead, this, too, was made possible by the connections that the volunteers had with the community. In the early years of the sale, volunteers realized that they could help the parents while their children shopped.

“I happened to work for allergy doctors and was familiar with allergy medications,” she said. “People thought that the parents who were waiting for their children would enjoy some helpful information.” In the 10 years since the sale began, it has more than quintupled in size. The first sale in 2001 served 200 children; this year’s sale projects will outfit over 1,000. Because so much of the sale relies on corporate donations, maintaining its scope has proved a challenge since the economy’s downturn in 2008. But for this year’s co-chairs, the challenge is one they’ve readily accepted.

“It’s been harder on us this year and last year because some of the corporations haven’t been able to give us what we had hoped for in terms of grant money. But we still have to follow through on it, and we do,” Silverman said.

At the end of the day, Kruvand, Newstead and Silverman are dedicated to providing each registered child with the $150 worth of merchandise they’ve promised-and this has meant more hard work on their parts.

“We’ve relied a lot on our own social networks,” said Kruvand. “It costs $150 to sponsor a child, and because we’ve had less corporate sponsorship, our average number of sponsored children per individual has been going up and up and up to compensate for that.”

According to all three co-chairs, online social networking has made it easier to get small-scale donations. Though they plan to move the organization to Facebook and Twitter next year, each woman’s individual Facebook page has proven to be a valuable resource for publicity.

The women are optimistic about this year’s event, which will take place on Sunday at the Central Reform Congregation. At Amy Fenster Brown’s house, the enthusiasm showed through.

“Did we really just finish that?” asked Andrea Newstead after 20 volunteers cleared out Brown’s basement in 15 minutes. “Wow. Wow.”

According to Silverman, teamwork among the volunteers and the optimism the event inspires are what keeps the women working hard all year to plan it.

“I’ve been a volunteer for a long time. I’ve done a lot of things, and this is my favorite, ever-ever,” Silverman said.