LIVINGSTON, NJ – More than 800 of the record number of Essex County children who pre-registered for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) Essex County chapter’s 11th annual Back 2 School Store (B2SS) event visited the one-day pop-up department store set up at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston on Sunday.

Through NCJW’s work with more than 35 social service agencies and community organizations, children throughout Essex County were invited from pre-qualified households in financial need to shop for various school supplies, clothing items and more at the B2SS.

The event kicked off with a celebratory ribbon cutting, where event co-chair Andrea Mintz thanked the more than 600 volunteers who helped the children shop as well as the sponsors and local dignitaries for their assistance in executing the event. She also thanked co-chairs Stacey Laken and Laurie Schuftan and the Steer Committee for all of their hard work.

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Mintz noted that NCJW was founded more than 100 years ago with the mission of improving the lives of children, mothers and families. The Essex County chapter is the largest in the country with more than 3,000 members who are committed to this cause, she said.

“[The B2SS] is my favorite NCJW/Essex event,” said Mintz. “Our goal is to make the children feel empowered to make their own decisions while choosing everything without their parents, [and] to raise their self esteem and feel excited and ready to start learning on the first day of school without them or their parents worrying about having what they need.

“I love seeing the spring on their step and smiles as they walk through the store choosing all their items. We appreciate the trust that our social service agency partners have in us to let them empower their families.”

Once the ribbon was cut, families entered the building and every child was assigned a personal shopper to guide him or her through a large room of brand-new merchandise.

Each child selected a backpack and filled it with items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, sanitized wipes, calculators, shirts and pants, shoes, underwear, socks, gloves and hats. Children were also able to pick out a winter coat, a book from the Tabak & Fass Book Nook, a dictionary and a pack of school supplies.

A 9-year-old named Taina said she was “very excited and having a great time picking things out.”

Caitlin Higgins Joy, executive director of NCJW/Essex, described the purpose of the B2SS.

“The NCJW/Essex B2SS is an incredible, volunteer-driven event empowering local children who might not otherwise have access to these resources to pick out their own backpacks, school clothes, sneakers, school supplies and books,” she said. “The entire event is free to both the students and their parents. We are so appreciative of the many volunteers who gave their time and energy, and want to thank our partner agencies who are instrumental to making this day a success.”

While the children chose new items for the school year, their parents visited the Gaelen Family Resource Center, which offered free University Hospital health screenings (blood pressure, glucose reading and vision tests) and helpful information about a variety of important topics.

Some of the booths at the Resource Center included Big Brothers and Big Sisters, The League of Women Voters (registering people to vote), University of Newark, Popular Bank, Planned Parenthood, Rutgers Health, State Farm Insurance, Newark University Hospital, Be Smart for Kids, Essex County Family Justice Center, Jewish Family Services (offering social services for all people), Child Care Resources, Rachel Coalition for the prevention of domestic violence and more. The Bloomfield Police Department also offered fingerprinting.

According to NCJW/Essex statistics, 21 percent of the households in Essex County lived below the poverty level in 2017. More than one-third (or 36 percent) of households in Newark were below the poverty level in 2017. Statistics revealed that 13,687 children in Newark lived in “extreme poverty” that year.

B2SS has been a tremendous help to families in financial need because back to school expenses cost $637 on average last year, according to NCJW representatives. Moreover, many school districts have had less money for school supplies in recent years and rely on parents to purchase some necessities.

Since 2009, B2SS has helped more than 5,500 children with the assistance of more than 4,000 volunteers.

Some of the dignitaries who attended the event included Livingston Township Council members Rudy Fernandez, Shawn Klein and Michael Vieira (whose wife Gabriela volunteered as a personal shopper at the store); Montclair’s Mayor Robert Jackson; Freeholder Pat Sebold; Jill Hirsch from Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill’s office; and Livingston Board of Education Vice President Ronnie Konnor.

A list of this year's event sponsors can be seen in the photos above. Beginning next week, NCJW/Essex will already be preparing for next year’s B2SS.

Grants and financial contributions from individuals, families and businesses make it possible for volunteers to purchase merchandise from major retail stores as well as wholesale operations. Volunteers also look for sales and promotions throughout the year.

Click here to learn more about NCJW.