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East Liberty Back2School event to give kids in need a hand with clothes

| Friday, July 24, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
In Squirrel Hill, from left, Barbara Parker, Lynne Siegel, Samantha Dye, and Andrea Glickman sort through clothing as they prepare for this year's Back 2 School Store, at the Anathan House, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
In Squirrel Hill, Lynne Siegel, left, and Samantha Dye, sort through items including clothing as they prepare for this year's Back 2 School Store, at the Anathan House, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
In Squirrel Hill, Samantha Dye and other volunteers sort through items including clothing as they prepare for this year's Back 2 School Store, at the Anathan House, Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

Andrea Glickman will never forget the moment she helped a little girl pick out a pair of new shoes to wear to school last fall.

As president of the Pittsburgh section of National Council of Jewish Women, Glickman was in St. Louis to see how her organization's sister section was operating a Back2School Store, a free clothes shop for low-income children.

“I was serving as a volunteer personal shopper,” says Glickman. The child she was assigned to help was so overwhelmed by the prospect of getting brand-new shoes, she couldn't decide which to choose.

“The look in her eyes was priceless,” says Glickman, who noticed how tight the girl's old shoes were when she helped her put them back on. “A lot of these kids get hand-me-downs, or they have to share with other siblings. Some of them share a toothbrush. It's awesome for them to get to pick something of their own.”

Glickman was so impressed with Back2School, which the NCJW operates in five other cities, she and her colleagues decided to bring the concept here. A Back2School store will be held at the East End Cooperative Ministry in East Liberty in August.

In what is likely to become an annual tradition, NCJW and its partners will enable 200 low-income children in grades K through 5 to shop for a complete outfit, from socks and underwear to winter coat, plus backpack and school supplies, valued at $180 per kid.

Little's Shoes in Squirrel Hill is donating all sneakers, while the International Association of Fire Fighters Local One is contributing coats, and the United Steelworkers International Union is providing school notebooks, says Glickman. Other products, such as socks, sweaters and trousers, are being purchased with contributions from foundations and from corporations such as Giant Eagle.

Items are being stashed in the basement of Anathan House, the NCJW's local headquarters in Squirrel Hill, while the East End Cooperative Ministry, the Squirrel Hill Community Food Bank and other direct-service providers are identifying prospective participants. Former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch and his wife, LaTasha Wilson-Batch — founders of the Munhall-based charity Best of the Batch — are honorary program chairs.

Because this is the first year, participation in Back2School will be limited to 200 youths, but the goal for next year is 400 kids, based on what has happened in other cities, says Glickman. “St. Louis NCJW now outfits 1,500 kids a year and went from a once-a-year store to operating 15 ‘kids community closets' around the city,” she says. “We expect to grow here, too.”

Close to a year of planning has gone into the Pittsburgh launch, and most of the work is being done by volunteers.

“We have committees for fund-raising, shopping, and marketing,” Glickman says. “The week we announced the program, more than 60 people signed up to become personal shoppers.”

Six women have been buying merchandise at Macy's, the Gap and other local stores since December, according to acquisitions-committee chair Lynne Siegel of Shadyside.

“It's been a hoot, because we all love to shop,” she says. “Once we developed relationships with store managers, they would give us price breaks, and they'd call us when they were planning sales.”

Employees at some of the shops have offered to volunteer at the event, Siegel says.

Community-service groups, such as the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, have jumped aboard, too. They will staff informational tables where parents and guardians can learn about HPV prevention, nutrition, dental care and other wellness issues while kids are shopping.

Ministry Executive Director Michael Mingrone says his agency wanted to host Back2School because it is a good fit with its mission of addressing children and youth needs, homelessness and hunger.

“We deal with over 1,000 kids a year and see every day how most don't have the tools they need for school, whether it's bookbags, clothes, or even pencils,” he says. “It isn't just embarrassing for these kids. It distracts them from being able to learn.”

Despite a turn-around in the economy, 171,000 families in Allegheny County don't know where their next meal is coming from, he says, and more than 17 percent of children in the county are in poverty.

In Pittsburgh, more than 22 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with the statewide average of 13.3 percent, according to the 2013 census, says Mingrone, whose agency serves about 45,000 free meals a year, and helps about 400 homeless individuals with housing.

Back2School fills a serious gap, and the concept of letting kids shop makes the clothes seem like less of a handout, Mingrone says.

“We don't subscribe to the old notion that beggars can't be choosers,” he says. “For a kid to be able to pick out his own clothing builds dignity and self-esteem.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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