Though temperatures tipped 90 degrees on Sunday, Rose-Lynn Okongwu, 5, proudly modeled her new leopard-lined winter coat, a welcome reprieve from the boyish hand-me-downs she usually gets from her brother.
Rose-Lynn was just one of 500 economically disadvantaged New Jersey students who scored brand-new school supplies and clothes on the National Council of Jewish Women’s dime. For the third year running, the organization’s Essex County Section poured $80,000 into crafting a high-end department store experience for needy kids, hand-picked by 20 service agencies.
Complete with personal shoppers, racks of skinny jeans, a sneaker section and bins of dictionaries and calculators, a West Orange synagogue became a makeshift mall for a day.
“It gives them a sense of dignity and self esteem,” remarked NCJW President Linda Slucker on how youngsters benefit from the event. “We want them to go into school with that backpack and feel proud.”
Some families were bussed in from shelters, others just don’t have the means to buy the back-to-school essentials. But each kindergarten through fifth grader was given the same star treatment upon arriving.
Students were paired with one of 375 volunteers, who navigated the tables of classroom materials and clothing racks, while checking off each head-to-toe clothing item from the lengthy list. While the children shopped, moms and dads got glucose and cholesterol screenings and learned about NCJW’s education, career, child-mentoring and domestic-abuse programs.
“The kids aren’t influenced by what they think they should get,” said volunteer Susan Kone Clamon on why parents were excluded from the shopping portion of the event. “The kids get to pick the color they want. Even if you have a younger brother, guess what? You can pick the pink.”
And girly tops, pants, sneakers and backpacks were certainly a crowd favorite among those who often share clothing with their brothers.
Eager to replace the Superman hat she inherited, Rose-Lynn picked a pink and brown one to match her coat.
“Sometimes you say you ‘don’t want it’ because it’s boy clothes,” Rose-Lynn lamented of the typical back-and-forth she and her mom engage in.
After Gabrielle Diaz, 8, tucked a green and purple sweater into a pair of dark jeans, she gave herself a once over in the fitting room and a nod of approval.
“I look good,” she acknowledged.
Many of the school-age kids, including Gabrielle, mentioned that they were more excited about filling up their backpacks with fresh notebooks and pencils, than they were about enhancing their wardrobes.
“I like school,” said fourth-grade bound Justina Iluonokhalumhe, 9. She said she can’t wait to try her new supplies and that her peers will likely “ask if they can use it.”
Though parents couldn’t join in watching their kids guiltlessly pull handfuls of Old Navy tops from the hangers and colorful binders from the boxes, they were quick to express what the gratis shopping spree meant to them.
“It takes a load off,” said Denice Diaz, a mother of five. “I can pay extra attention to the older kids”
In addition to easing their financial burden, the adults said they walked away from the information sessions with invaluable health lessons. Justina’s mom, Martha, was shocked to learn how curable oral cancer is, but how critical dental check ups are in detecting it. Evelyn Okongwu, Rose-Lynn’s mother, noted that she’s now more informed on what her glucose and cholesterol numbers actually mean.
“It’s exciting, we’re really grateful,” Okongwu shared. “We had the opportunity to take care of ourselves.”