For most kids in the St. Louis area, the phrase ‘back to school’ means new beginnings, new books, shiny new shoes and crisp new clothes. But even with Labor Day sales and discount stores, not every family can afford the considerable expense of outfitting a child for school. That’s where the Back-To-School! Store, sponsored by National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW)-St. Louis Section, comes in. Now in its 10th year, the ‘store,’ actually a one-day, invitation-only event held at a midtown location, gets the academic year off to a solid start by providing new clothing, school supplies and other necessities for nearly 1,000 deserving kids ages 5 to 10.
“It’s set up like a department store, and the kids are assigned an adult volunteer to help them shop for clothes and supplies in their favorite colors and styles,” explains event co-chair Jenny Abeles. “Each child gets a complete outfit—including clothing, underwear, socks, shoes, a winter coat, hat and gloves—plus school supplies, a backpack, a book and personal care items.” The event also features an on-site family resource center that offers child health and safety information and services such as vision and dental screenings. “It’s a great way to begin the school year with enthusiasm and positive self-esteem,” Abeles says.
In its first nine years, the store has assisted thousands of elementary school children from low-income families. “Invitations are sent to qualifying families whose needs aren’t being met by existing services,” Abeles says. “More than 35 social service agencies, churches and community service organizations help select the kids.” Funding is supplied by corporate grants and private donations, she adds. “For $150, you can completely outfit a child.”
NCJW-St. Louis Section was established 115 years ago to identify community needs and create programs to address them. Beginning with the first free milk program in St. Louis public schools in 1919, NCJW has since developed more than 50 community service projects to improve the quality of life for women, children and families. Other local projects include Kids Community Closet. “Currently, NCJW has ‘closets’ in five schools or agencies, with another two under construction and plans for several more underway,” Abeles explains. “Each closet contains clothing items that a child might have an immediate need for during the school day.”
The local NCJW also supports the organization’s national advocacy efforts. “In addition, we sponsor Wife-Widow-Woman, a support group for widowed women of all ages, and The Silent Witness Domestic Violence Awareness Exhibit, a traveling memorial to Missouri women who were murdered during episodes of domestic violence,” Abeles says. Other services include Crown Center for Senior Living, the Victims Service Council, Court-Appointed Special Advocates of St. Louis County and Legal Advocates for Abused Women. NCJW’s Community Speak Out, held in Jefferson City and Washington, D.C., allows constituents to meet with legislators; and Legislative Links, an educational program, brings legislators, journalists and other speakers to town.
“We offer something for women of all ages, but children have a special place in our hearts,” Abeles says. “The goal of the Back-To-School! Store is to create a positive experience for the kids, so they look forward to the beginning of the new school year with excitement, not dread or embarrassment. They return to school with a boosted self-image—and they’re ready to learn.”
Genita Fields is a youth worker at Mt. Bulah Missionary Baptist Church, which has participated in the event for several years. “The Back-To-School! Store bridges the service gap in our communities,” she says. “The children are treated with loving respect—and they have an amazing time. Our children are truly blessed by it.”