By Ema Schumer
Around 200 children from low-income families shopped for free, brand-new back-to-school clothing and supplies at the National Council of Jewish Women New York (NCJW NY)’s community center on the Upper West Side earlier this week.
Now in its fifth year, “Back 2 School Store” simulates a bona fide shopping experience for participating kids, who are entering grades pre-K to fifth grade and who may not otherwise have the opportunity to go shopping to prepare for the school year — an experience that children throughout the country enjoy every August.
For the event, volunteers and staff of NCJW NY — a nonprofit inspired by Jewish values that strives to uplift vulnerable New Yorkers from all backgrounds — transform the organization’s Council House, at 241 West 72nd Street, into a “pop-up department store.” Accompanied by a volunteer “personal shopper,” each child may select a full outfit, including a winter coat, a shirt, a pair of pants, pair of sneakers, along with a backpack and various supplies with which to stuff it. All of the items were either purchased by NCJW NY or donated by businesses, some of which are local.
To pre-register children, NCJW NY partnered with ten community-based agencies in Manhattan and the Bronx. Children who are eligible to participate in the event come from families who receive either Medicaid, nutrition assistance, or public housing, explained NCJW NY Executive Director Andrea Salwen Kopel.
Kopel said that the event’s impact goes beyond the material items the children take home. “We want this to be fun and exciting. It’s a lot more than giving them the stuff,” she said. “The stuff is important, but it’s really about the experience of the day and creating excitement about going back to school.”
That positive experience is rooted in the children’s freedom to choose the items they want. “[It’s a] luxury of choice we know these kids don’t usually have. Choice is empowering. Choice brings pride and joy,” she said.
Stephanie Garcia, who lives on the Lower East Side, accompanied her 10-year-old daughter Skyleen to the event. Skyleen selected a hot pink winter jacket, white Vans shoes, and a backpack with the print of a panda. In addition to saving Garcia money, she said that the event allowed Skyleen “to enjoy her day with her friends” — other kids associated with University Settlement, a Lower East Side nonprofit that brought children enrolled in its services to the event. Garcia rejoiced in her daughter’s newfound excitement about going back to school: “I want her being enthusiastic going into the new year. Fifth grade’s a big year for her. This pumps her up.”
Among those attending the event were Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents New York’s 10th Congressional district, and District 6 City Council Member Helen Rosenthal. Rosenthal, who has attended Back 2 School Store every year since its inception in 2015, commended the event for its ability to bring together New Yorkers. “What is beautiful about this is that it humanizes everyone. People from all socioeconomic backgrounds [are] coming together in such a positive experience,” she said.