WEST ORANGE, NJ - Nine-year-old Shalom Rouse roams through circular racks of colorful shirts, pants and jackets and tables loaded with backpacks, marble notebooks, calculators and other school supplies. He picks out some clothes and tries them on for size in a spacious changing room in the back. When he emerges, he follows a volunteer to the other side of the space to where shelves upon shelves of shoes wait for “eager” shoppers to pick them out. Wherever he goes, he carries with him a blue-checkered backpack stuffed with pencils, notebooks, folders, and anything else he may need for the upcoming school year.
Although it may seem like it, Shalom's shopping spree did not take place at some new hybrid department/office supply store; rather, it took place at Congregation B'Nai Shalom in West Orange.
On Aug. 4, the synagogue was transformed into a pop-up department store for the National Council of Jewish Women's "Back 2 School Store" event. However, the Back 2 School Store was not open to the public—it was exclusive to economically-disadvantaged children from Essex County. With the help of volunteer personal shoppers, children in kindergarten through fifth grade had the opportunity to "shop" for free for back-to-school essentials and new outfits complete with shirts, pants, sneakers, winter clothing and even underwear.
With their children in the hands of the more than 400 event volunteers, parents and guardians were able to browse through the Gaelen Family Resource Center set up in the outer lobby. The Center's various booths provided information on healthcare, Medicaid, career opportunities, domestic violence programs and fire safety, among numerous other community resources.
"There are a lot of ways to make donations—you can give away clothes, you can give away money, you can give away school supplies,” said NCJW President Deborah Legow Schatz. “But what we do is we make this all about building children's self-esteem, and about choice. These kids shop one-on-one with a personal shopper, without their parents, no outside pressures, and they come in and they choose from brand new goods, anything they want. It's all about making that child feel special, feel good. It might be the first time they get their own shoes, so it's a big deal.”
The NCJW, which is located in Livingston, is a volunteer organization built on Jewish values that works to ensure individual freedoms and improve the lives of women, children and families. The Essex County Section of the organization is the largest in the U.S., with membership exceeding 3,200 volunteers. For the Back 2 School Store, the NCJW partnered with over 30 social service agencies to identify qualified families that would benefit from the shopping spree.
Co-Chair Leslie Levinthal recounted an early experience as a volunteer at the Back 2 School Store: "My first year, I took a little girl around and I said pick a toothbrush, and she said, ‘Is it just for me? When I'm home, I share with my sister.'”
“That's what hooked me,” said Levinthal. “This is the face of the child that we serve—the child who has to share a toothbrush, the child who never gets a new coat, the child who never gets new shoes that fit—that's who comes here."
The New Community Corporation, a non-profit organization out of Newark that provides services in low-income housing, early childhood education, job development and healthcare, was one agency that partnered with the NCJW to identify underprivileged families and make the Back 2 School Store a success.
"It's really important as a child to feel confident and ready and excited for the new school year to begin," said Eunice Lee, director of communications for the New Community Corporation. "Everything here is new, it's in fashion, it's trendy."
New Community was responsible for guiding Shalom and his family to the event. As residents of Harmony House Transitional Living Facility in Newark, the Rouses were identified by New Community Board Member Madge Wilson, who alerted Shalom's mother, Mary, and registered her four age-qualified children to shop at the pop-up store.
"Being a mom of nine, it's a blessing, but it's a struggle at times," said Mary. "In my home, I do believe in passing clothes down, but sometimes there's times where you can't do that—shoes get worn, clothes get torn. So events like this are able to help me fill those gaps where either I wasn't able to hand something down or at the moment, I wasn't able to purchase something. It lightens the burden of being financially strapped."
"What I like about this event is they will take the children themselves and let them shop for what they want,” said Wilson. “That's the unique part about it. The child can say, 'I like this, I like this,' and Mommy's not there to say, 'I don't want you to have this.' That's why you see they're so careful about the kids and bringing them back to their families. It's a great experience for them. It's a lot of chaos, but I love it."
"It's important to be able to be ready on the first day of school with all their supplies, the right color uniform, a decent pair of shoes where nobody's making fun of them, they don't feel inadequate, they don't feel left out, they're not being bullied, they're not feeling different or that they stand out in a negative way,” said Mary. “The first day of school, they're going to stand out and it'll be a positive way. It'll help their confidence in going through the rest of the year. It'll help them start out on a good note.”
Apart from the immense benefits for the parents and children, the volunteers were also able to gain something positive.
"When I see a smile on the parents' faces and the kids are hugging me and saying thank you, Ms. Wilson—I love what I do, because I enjoy doing things for people who are less fortunate,” said Wilson with a radiant smile. “So it's like Christmas here for our children because they can't wait to get home to open up the bags."
Shalom's personal shopper, Barry Marks, also found the experience fulfilling.
"I love this,” he said. “I've got five grandkids, and they don't let me go shopping with them. This is incredible.”
All photos by Mindy Gorin.