Little shoppers

Back-to-school drive provides free supplies to needy residents

For the second year in a row the North Bergen Emergency Relief Program hosted a back-to-school drive, collecting supplies for a month and a half and then distributing them for free last week to residents.
“We got almost everything they need, school-wise,” said a very happy Crystal Negroni, “shopping” at the Recreation Center on Sept. 2 with her three kids, Alyssa, 12, Alicia, 8, and Ariella, 4.
Like many attendees, Crystal learned about the event from social media. “I know Aimee and I follow her on Instagram and Facebook,” she said.
Aimee Focaraccio is the Emergency Relief Coordinator for the Township of North Bergen. She was the one who initially suggested and organized the back-to-school drive.
“Last year was our first year and it was a huge success,” she said. “So this year we basically doubled the expectancy and we have about double the amount of stuff.”
Items included everything a kid could need in school, from pencils and erasers to backpacks and uniforms – with a final table complete with snacks and juices.
“Most of the donations came from North Bergen residents,” explained Focaraccio. “We had bins throughout town. The library collected tons of supplies at both the uptown branch and the downtown branch, and some different churches collected supplies.”

“Last year was our first year and it was a huge success. So this year we basically doubled the expectancy.” –Aimee Focaraccio
In addition, some organizations like CarePoint Health and Helping Angels provided gift cards. Donations were collected from July 15 to Aug. 30. “Then what we do is we sort everything out,” said Focaraccio. “We count everything. And then we go purchase whatever we’re lacking.”
In 2014 they distributed items to 160 families. For 2015, they prepared for 300. “We had 410 notebooks, which is good, but one notebook per kid isn’t enough. We had 200 and something folders. I went and bought another 700. So we’re able to give them three folders each, three notebooks each.”
A long line of residents stood outside the Rec Center at 9 a.m. when the event kicked off, with Mayor Nicholas Sacco in attendance to help with distribution. By 10 a.m. the dozen or so volunteers had already provided supplies to nearly 100 kids.

Color-coordinated shopping

Cindy and Charlie Hesleitner found out about the event on Aimee’s Facebook page and came to pick up supplies for their nieces and nephew in pre-K and grades two and three. “We got a little bit of everything,” said Cindy.
“It’s very helpful for the kids,” said Charlie. “Especially the ones that can’t afford it, and especially the uniforms. Sometimes uniforms are too expensive.”
“They outgrow them before they outwear them,” said Cindy of the “new or gently used” school uniforms piled up on a table near the exit.
Backpacks were another popular item, with kids sorting through the piles to find that special design. What was most popular? “It depends on the kid,” said one of the volunteers. “The smaller kids like the character ones. They’re all looking for ‘Frozen’ but all the ‘Frozen’ ones are gone.”
Kaylee Hall, 5, didn’t mind. She found exactly what she wanted: a purple ensemble. “I got this crayon box because it’s got purple and red,” she said with a smile, proudly showing off her booty.
“She picked up all matching folders to match her purple book bag,” said her mom, Caroline Negroni. “She’s always color-coordinated.”
For Ikhlas Nour Djawhar, 7, the color of the day was pink. She was happy to find a backpack that fit her personality.
Her mom, Saadia Atouani, heard about the event at the library. “We go all the time to the library on 85th,” she said. “And I spread the news to my friends.”

Free health screenings… and snacks

Back in the far corner of the room was a table of volunteers from the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services. They attended the event to provide free lead screenings.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, with many older homes in need of repairs and old lead-based paint peeling and chipping, the importance of lead testing was brought to the fore. Funded by a grant, the Jersey City Health Department began traveling around the county to events with children to offer the free screenings. Results were provided within five minutes.
Providing the service at the North Bergen event were Community Outreach Coordinator Katiana Scalione, Health Nurse Felicia Collis, and Children’s Clinic Laboratory Supervisor Zulma Lamela. Kids who participated were given a water bottle for their trouble.
From there the next table was loaded with cookies and snacks. Shorouk Gamil, 4, had a radiant smile as she picked up juice and crackers. “She’s very excited to start school,” said her mom, Rachida Gamil.
Karim Faiz attended with his whole family, stocking up on supplies for the coming school year. Asked what was the best item he picked up, Karim’s son was too shy to respond, but Karim knew the answer.
“Of course, cookies,” he said with a laugh.
When the event ended at 4 p.m., close to 300 backpacks had been given out, filled with two spiral notebooks each, one composition notebook, three folders, binders and filler paper for older children, pens and pencils, as well as erasers, glue, glue sticks, rulers, pencil cases, crayons, colored pencils, markers, highlighters, scissors, memo pads, and more.
Among those donating to the drive were Sunrise Optical, BJs, the North Hudson Moose Lodge, Ravi Varma, and many township employees and North Bergen residents.

Art Schwartz may be reached at

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