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More than school supplies

NCJW/Essex volunteers help build confidence of children in need

Penina Barr, president of the Essex County section of NCJW, talks to 
a child. (NCJW Essex)
Penina Barr, president of the Essex County section of NCJW, talks to a child. (NCJW Essex)

Do volunteers get more than they give? Sometimes they feel that way, volunteers say. At the very least, they get a sense of joy and fulfillment, emotions not easily acquired or dismissed.

That’s one reason the NCJW Essex volunteers who shop, sort, and distribute supplies at the group’s annual Back 2 School Store — where county children in financial need get to “shop” for free clothing, sneakers, school supplies, and personal care items — tend to participate in the project year after year.

Lauren Fass, co-chair of the store, said, “The B2SS is one of the most fun and most rewarding volunteer opportunities NCJW/Essex offers.” In addition to shopping for the thousands of items needed to stock its one-day giveaway, “What makes this event even more special is that the children have the opportunity to choose the coats, shirts, books, etc., that fit their style or interest them so they feel confident and ready to embark on a fantastic school year. I tell everyone that volunteering at the B2SS will be some of the most gratifying hours of their year, because of the sheer joy and excitement the children and their families radiate.”

This year, because of the covid pandemic, the clothing and school supplies were delivered to NCJW’s 40 partner agencies, rather than collected directly by students. Those agencies, in turn, delivered the items to the individual children.

“This is the 12th year we are holding the store, but the first year we have transformed the store, due to current public health concerns, to create the first-ever NCJW/Essex Mobile Back to School Store,” Anna Sandler, NCJW’s communications director, said. “This has enabled us to continue to serve the children and families in our community who have been among the hardest hit during these difficult times.”

During Phase 1 in July, the store gave out backpacks, school supplies, packages of Bombas socks, board games, and reusable face masks. This month saw the completion of Phase 2, in which the organization gave out winter coats, hats, gloves, long-sleeved shirts, pants, packages of underwear, and books.

“The children and families in the Essex County community who are served by the Back 2 School Store have been among the hardest hit during these extraordinary times, and we knew we had to find a way to bring the store to them, safely and securely,” Caitlin Higgins Joy, NCJW/Essex’s executive director, said.

“Volunteering at the Back 2 School Store is such an incredible way to make a direct impact on the lives of women and children in the community,” the section president, Penina Barr, said. “I’m proud that this year we were able to deliver personalized bags to 1,000 kids in financial need, as well as to provide winter coats and clothing to an additional 750 children.”

The word “personalized” is literal. Between Phases 1 and 2, volunteers collected information on the children’s sizes, favorite colors, and clothing preferences. Then they set about giving each child what he or she wanted. Children also received an age-appropriate book as well as a personal note.

All the merchandise was brand new; NCJW/Essex bought it using philanthropic and sponsorship dollars, Ms. Sandler said. “The one-day event takes a year of planning,” she added. She noted that in every other year, before covid hit, while the children shopped, the Gaelen Family Resource Center gave parents and caregivers the opportunity to learn about health care and career and educational opportunities, to participate in free health screenings, and to gather information about other community resources.

Ms. Fass paid tribute to the many volunteers who make the Back 2 School Store possible. “During a time when everyone feels so isolated and disconnected, it is really heartwarming to see people from all walks of life come together to pull this off,” she said. “We had an amazing team of volunteers.

“The agency representatives were able to get us sizing and color preferences on all of these children (at a time when they don’t have the same level of contact with these families), and we had such phenomenal support from our sponsors. Everyone stepped up above and beyond our expectations. It was truly a community effort!”

“Volunteers shop all year around,” Ms. Sandler said. “There are subcommittees just on socks, or just on coats. It’s usually a one-day store, but it’s a full-year project.” The mobile store “is not really mobile,” she added. “Partner agencies brought their own transportation to Beth Sholom in Livingston,” where the kits were assembled, “and Essex County buses made some of the deliveries.”

Ms. Sandler said that NCJW Essex has a building in Livingston, a staff of 12, and hundreds of volunteers “who make our programs work.” In addition to hands-on initiatives like B2SS, the organization is actively involved in advocacy, working on such issues as gun violence prevention, reproductive rights, and voting rights. NCJW Essex also maintains its Center for Women, which is open to the community and offers workshops on a variety of topics as well as computer classes, legal guidance, career services, and peer support — as well as a traditional women’s seder and “mitzvah in a minute” program.

With more than 3,200 members, NCJW’s Essex County section is the largest of the more than 100 NCJW sections around the country. The section was founded in 1912 and maintains offices in Livingston. For more information, go to www.ncjwessex.org.

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