Right here in my corner of the universe, a feel-good, do-good project has been sending children back to school every year for the past seven years, with new books and backpacks, sneakers and clothes and even toiletries — and it’s all free.
The annual National Council of Jewish Women Back to School Store was held last week at Hewlett High School, where the gym was magically transformed into a full-service department store. Friday was for pre-K children and kids with special needs, and Sunday was for students going into kindergarten and up. Orders were taken and delivered to children in homeless shelters in nearby communities.
As I walked in to observe the event, News 12 was walking out. Aren’t we all starving for stories that reflect the selflessness and generosity of our friends and neighbors?
Planning for the Back to School Store takes months of work, organizing some 250 volunteers and reaching out to communities in need. Some 800 families are invited to the store, referred by various school and social service agencies.
Children arrive with a parent. Then an NCJW “personal shopper” is assigned to the student, and the parent is directed to a resource area. While the kids shop with their helpers for anything and everything they need and want, the parents can browse through a number of service desks that offer information on local health care, addiction, AIDS, insurance, voter registration, the 2020 census and Planned Parenthood.
Meanwhile, back at the store, the story is written in the children’s faces. At first, some are tentative, but it doesn’t take long for them to pick out stuff that will make their back-to-school experience fun and easy. There is everything from toothbrushes to socks to winter coats to T-shirts and pants to pens and notebooks. All the merchandise is brand new, and it does feel like the first day of school. There’s even a try-on area so volunteers can help the kids get their sizes right. The children walk out of the gym beaming and loaded down with tote bags of merchandise.
One of the NCJW members, Natalie Zeiger, said she had drifted from volunteer work over the years, but this program brought her back. Asked if it was difficult to get people to give up a full day of their weekend, she said, “Not for this program.”
During the year, in preparation for the day, NCJW volunteers solicit merchandise donations and financial support. But the real gift is the time each of the volunteers gives, showing up and doing a job that will send children back to school in September feeling empowered and prepared for a new year. An important piece of the concept is to let the kids make their own choices and pick the colors and particular items that help them feel good about themselves and ready to focus on learning.
It takes a week to set up the store. Bonnie Sperry, the section administrator for NCJW’s Peninsula Section, said the Hewlett-Woodmere School District plays a big part in facilitating the day. The custodial staff, she said, was key to making the day possible. Good will floated in the air. Volunteers didn’t just help kids into new puffy winter jackets; they zipped them up and hugged them for good luck.
What is obvious to any observer is the average age of the volunteers. One child was overheard saying, “Why are there so many old people here?” The volunteer handled the question with grace, explaining that older people who don’t work every day have the time to help others, and that’s what they want to do.
Charities across America are struggling to bring in new, younger members. According to the Corporation for National Community Service, 25.3 percent of Americans — 62.8 million — volunteer. The age group that volunteers the most hours is GenX, followed by baby boomers. Boomers were out in force at the NCJW School Store.
Partly it’s a fact of life: Many more women are working full time, and don’t have the available hours that women had a generation or two ago. When you see a day like this, you want to urge everyone to find the time to reach out in their own communities.
It was a good day for NCJW. It was a good day for the kids and their parents. From my perch, it looked like an especially good day for the volunteers.
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.