Volunteering at a “Back 2 School Store” for Underserved Kids was a Lesson Learned by a Much Older, Privileged Student
I march down West End Avenue in New York City and swing right onto 72nd Street early on a Sunday morning. I am volunteering with what is called the National Council of Jewish Women’s “Back 2 School Store” on Manhattan's west side. I thought it would be a great opportunity to interact with young kids and their families and possibly meet some new people in my adopted city after moving from St. Louis two years ago.
It is a glorious day. Cloudless and cool. The bright blue-sky glistens as I enter the four-story NCJW building on a busy street lined with former turn-of-the century (Gilded Age) palatial-sized and often gaudy residences, many of which have been converted into apartment buildings, small businesses and nonprofits, retail stores and restaurants.
I am ready to roll. First, comes the training, when a staff person who introduces herself as a social worker, gives us the lay of the land. Each volunteer takes a nametag with an assignment (mine says “Outside”), and we don a cherry red apron with the wording, “NCJW Back 2 School Store”.
The four-story building is set up like a store with different departments on three floors. One floor is reserved for the volunteers with training areas and bathrooms. The other three floors are filled with clothing and shoes. Cardboard boxes are piled up on the floors, empty hangers and many items are still wrapped in dusty cellophane. The fresh new array of hats and wool mittens are laid out on tables set out in their ordered gradations of color, size and type. Pants, tops, coats and shoes are on racks by size.
The kids that day—from those entering kindergarten to middle schoolers--are invited to “shop”. All live in a shelter for battered women and children. Promptly at 10 a.m., the young shoppers, each accompanied by an adult, line up outside like soldiers waiting to sign in. Everyone must wear a mask. Each shopper is given a Fresh Direct bag in which to place their new finds.
I stand outside handing out activity kits filled with sidewalk chalk and games, but I am not sure what to do after that. So, I start talking to those waiting. I introduce myself as “Meg Crane, a volunteer.” I shake hands. Mumble a few questions. I have learned from my many years of working with underserved populations that everyone needs to feel welcome, secure, respected and important. Treat them like a guest in your home, I was told years ago, and I feel good about doing that.
Everyone has a good story to share. I approach an older woman who is thin and tall with gray-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. I admire her two children, aged 5 and 8, who she quickly tells me are adopted. She was volunteering at what she calls a “foundling home” and started to foster the two kids. Shortly after, she adopted them. The two children, a sister and brother, both have challenging health and behavioral problems, she confides. The kids start fighting; they are fidgety. I am impressed at how patiently she talks to them.
I chat with a 7th grade girl, tall with dark eyes and dreadlocks, and ask about her school year. “Did you have any trouble learning on Zoom?” “Did you fall behind in your work?” Her answer surprises me. “It was easier to work on a screen rather than in a classroom with all the distractions,” she volunteers. Her grade point average, she boasts, was a 97 percent. I congratulate her on the achievement.
Another woman, probably in her late 30s, is holding a 1-year-old. She looks at me oddly when I first approach. Because she has a mask on, I can only see her eyes. The child looks at me penetratingly. After a quick exchange, “Hi, I am Meg. How are you doing today?” the woman relaxes, and exhibits guarded minimal pleasantness. We chit chat mostly about the baby: Is she a good baby? Does she sleep through the night? Does she have older siblings who help out?
Soon, someone taps me on the shoulder to ask if I will take polaroid pictures of the kids. They have a new camera still in the box and several boxes of film. I say I am happy to so. And then I panic…I have no idea how to use the camera. It’s nothing like the old Polaroid I got rid of when I moved out of my home of 37 years.
“Come on Meg,” I think to myself. “You can figure this out.” Fortunately, Josh, a recent college grad, is standing nearby. “Can you help?” I ask. Together, we load the camera, and I’m ready to go.
I find a good spot outside and start shooting. It is so much fun watching the kids pose as if it’s their “15 minutes of fame.” The parents and guardians on the sidelines shout, “Come on, L., move a little to the left,” “Say cheese,” “Don’t close your eyes,” “Smile.”
Again, a staff person taps me on the shoulder and asks if I would take two sisters, aged 6 and 9, shopping. I say “of course”, basically clueless about what to do. I wing it. Just have fun with them, I think. And we do.
J. is tiny, skinny and very sweet. Her sister, A., is a few inches taller but also trim with a more serious demeanor. Both girls are wearing masks but have thick manes of long dark hair, sparkling brown eyes and luxuriant thick lashes.
We hit the shoe department first and after trying on several pairs, laughing uproariously when one tries to squeeze a foot in, like Cinderella’s stepsisters. I joke, who needs glass slippers when you can have a silver pair of tennis shoes. The girls end up choosing matching tennis shoes, white, pink and blue, each in their own size. Next, they select pants and tops and try them on in the makeshift dressing rooms. Both go for sparkles and sequins on the shirts and patterned skinny pants. It is the same routine for choosing the rest of their clothing—coats, hats, mittens. They will definitely be ready for winter.
The shopping spree ends with each girl picking a backpack in a favorite color that’s stuffed with school supplies. “Look at the crayons and magic markets,” the 6-year-old exclaims unzipping her pack. We are finished and as the girls exit, they run to their mother to show off their new belongings.
As my shift ends, I am left wondering what will become of these kids, making up their lives in my head. "Good luck in school this year," I yell to all the kids waiting, as I walk down the street to head back to my home.
Being around these children and their parents makes me realize how lucky I am. I am safe. I am privileged, I have a roof over my head. I’ve had my share of happiness. My three kids grew up in a safe home. And I could afford to take them shopping in real stores.
In fact, I am exceptionally happy that day. I am smiling when I meet a friend later. “Why do you keep smiling?” she asks. I couldn’t quite explain to someone who hadn’t been there to experience the joy of seeing these kids doing what all kids do before a school year starts—shopping for new clothing and school supplies. It was a happy and safe moment in their upended lives.