Ask any co-chair or the president of the organization or its executive director and they all will say that what has made the Back to School! Store work seamlessly over the past two decades comes down to one word: volunteers.
“Volunteers are what makes this project work,” said Gail Eisenkramer, president of the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis (NJCW-STL), a nonprofit whose signature community event is the Back to School! Store (BTSS).
“From my understanding, this project was started to get volunteers involved. So many of our members want a one-time job, and basically that’s the Back to School! Store. Some may volunteer for one or two shifts; they love taking the kids around and shopping with them, while others may get much more involved. Our last in-house Back to School! Store had more than 600 volunteers.”
The BTSS takes place one day a year, usually in late July or early August, and provides underserved elementary school children a chance to “shop” for supplies and other necessities for the upcoming school year. NCJW-STL volunteers act as personal shoppers to assist the children in selecting backpacks, school supplies, coats, hats, gloves, clothes, shoes, personal care items and more from among thousands of donated and purchased items.
Some years, children have received free eye exams and dental screenings, while a parent resource room offers all sorts of useful information ranging from animal safety to nutrition advice to building first aid kits for families.
Carolyn Satz, who served as one of the first co-chairs in 2001, said BTSS was modeled after a program started by the Service League of Green Bay, Wis., in 1993. The first one in St. Louis was held at Central Reform Congregation and served 222 low-income area children from 11 social service agencies, with 78 NCJW-STL volunteers helping to outfit the kids.
Satz said that over the course of 20 years, the goal of the store hasn’t changed much, although the operation has grown significantly. A few years ago, it moved from CRC to a bigger space at Temple Israel to accommodate more children from more agencies as well as more volunteers.
“The goal has always been to create enthusiasm about the coming school year and positive self-esteem for elementary school-age children so they would be ready to focus on learning and to succeed,” said Satz, 70, a United Hebrew congregant and retired teacher. “Judging from the notes we get from the various social service agencies telling us how thrilled the children were and the smiles on the kids’ faces, I think we have done a good job fulfilling that goal.”
Amanda Stein, 31, a third-grade teacher in the Ritenour School District, has been volunteering with NCJW-STL and the BTSS since she was in her early 20s. She says she got involved largely because she believes in the organization’s mission.
“I really identify with NCJW’s mission of supporting women, children and families,” said Stein, who co-chaired the BTSS from 2016 to 2020 and is NCJW-STL’s vice president of community service.
“Being a teacher, I see firsthand the reaction of students when they don’t come to school with supplies. For example, if they don’t have a notebook, I have to staple loose-leaf sheets of paper together for them because I don’t have a notebook to give them. It’s really disheartening and hard for them. They can’t start off on the right foot without supplies. A student can perform so much better at school, and be much more ready to learn, if they are equipped with the right tools.”
Stein said that for parents with limited income and resources, back-to-school shopping can easily cost hundreds of dollars that they just don’t have.
“What we do takes a lot of stress off of these parents,” she said. “If parents aren’t stressed, then the house isn’t stressed, and the kids aren’t stressed. It’s kind of a trickle-down effect.”
Stein also has been impressed with the way the BTSS has responded to the needs of the children as well as changing times. A few years ago, for example, after several children cried to their personal shoppers about being hungry, the BTSS began partnering with Operation Food Search so that all the kids could receive a snack. Also, a sign that pointed girls in one direction and boys in another was scrapped so that children who appeared as one gender but identified as another wouldn’t feel excluded or isolated.
“I think that just speaks to the approach of NCJW, because we see a problem and we figure out how we can fix it or make it better,” Stein said.
The biggest change in the way the BTSS does business came this past summer, as the store celebrated its 20th anniversary, when it was forced to make adjustments due to the COVID pandemic. The most notable adaptation was the distribution process. The organization made pickup and delivery contactless and socially distanced, and volunteers delivered supplies to NCJW-STL partner agencies, which in turn distributed the supplies to the children. The plan is to do the same next year, when the store is held Aug. 1.
“The silver lining was that we were able to provide supplies to more kids,” said Ellen Alper, CEO of NCJW-STL. “We served 2,000 kids this summer, which was 500 more than we had planned to serve. Since we didn’t have a physical space where we have to pay for security and other things, we took those dollars to buy more backpacks. So, from that perspective, the pandemic allowed us to serve more kids.”
Alper and Stein point out that the pandemic didn’t derail BTSS volunteers from wanting to help, either. In fact, both women, and others associated with NCJW-STL, feel that two things have sustained the store for 20 years and counting.
“First, the fact that there is still a need for the Back to School! Store,” Stein said. “In an ideal world, NCJW strives not only to have these projects, like the Back to School! Store, but also fix the underlying cause as to why we need a Back to School! Store. To me, that’s one thing that’s sad: The need is still there. This year we served 2,000 kids, which means 2,000 kids needed backpacks, they needed socks, they needed school supplies.”
The other reason: volunteers.
“Our volunteers are incredibly dedicated,” Alper said.
Added Stein: “Even this past year, when we had to pivot, it wasn’t the same exact volunteer experience, but we still had people knocking on the door to be able to volunteer and drive and make deliveries.”