Fresh Start For Local Kids

Post by Sonoma Life Magazine

Making a Difference, One shoe at a time...

At 5 a.m. 11 more Than 100 young adults will gather outside Kohl’s in Petaluma eagerly waiting to get inside the store.You might think they’re gearing up for a super sale, but you’d be wrong: Active 20-30’s Children’s Shopping Spree is about to begin.

Three Chapters of the Active 20–30 Club (with members between 20 and 39 years old) will join the effort with other chapters around the region, state and country to help children in need buy clothes for the upcoming school year.But more than that, volunteers connect with students in a way that they hope will make a lasting difference.

“The concept is to put the children on a level playing field (with other kids on the first day of school). For many kids going back-to-school shopping is a big event and a lot of children in our community don’t have that,” says Petaluma Chapter Vice-President Jennifer Hundley.

The collaboration of the North Bay, Petaluma and Sebastopol chapters is in it’s third year and this year will provide shopping, school supplies, a free hair cut and a catered breakfast for 100 area children.

On Shopping Spree day, it all starts before many of us are out of bed; Kohls opens the store exclusively for this group. It’s not a public sale and students are prescreened to qualify.Last year the group helped 75 Students and provided each with $150.Not only are more children able to participate this year, the club raised enough money to give each a $175 shopping card.

Volunteers are matched with students, who briefly meet with parents to find out what their children need. But when it’s time to shop, the parents wait outside.

“The point of the experience is for the kids to be able to interact with people they wouldn’t ordinarily,” says Alex Vito, Active 20–30 Sebastopol president.

Hundley says it’s a system that works well.

“The first year I helped with the Santa Rosa Spree and I came back to our chapter and said ‘we have got to do this,’” she recalls. “In our first year, our president was teamed with a child who said ‘Pinch me, pinch me, this is like a dream. I’ve never been to a mall before.’ Those are the type of things that give you chills and it keeps us coming back every year.”

Of course, none of it would be possible without community support.

“Kohl’s is a great supporter. They open the store for us at 6 a.m. so we can have the store to ourselves,” Vito notes. “They give the kids everything at a sales price and then take another 10 percent off.”

Hundley adds that Kohls was happy to help when approached.

“We contacted the manager and explained what it was we wanted to do and where the money comes from,” she says, noting that the other Kohl’s branches support similar efforts. “They have an awesome program and recruit their employees to volunteer for this event. It’s amazing the customer service we get, (the employees) are in the aisles to help us find anything we need.”

And with that, teams of volunteers and kids fan out through the store, searching high and low for the perfect pair of jeans, the best shoes or the coolest jackets.

“A lot of times they get one thing and think they are done. (Some of them) have no concept of what $150 will buy, so we make sure they get everything they need,” says Vito, adding that volunteers get a lot from the experience too.

“We hear about these kids in need and you know it’s out there, but until You talk to the kids, you have no idea really what it’s like. It makes it real and brings it all together,” he says.

For Hundley, herself a mother, watching the excitement on the children’s faces is an irreplaceable experience.

“The kids are excited, they walk out of there with bags and bags of clothes. It’s great to watch them come running out to show their parents what they got. I saw one girl take everything out of her bags one by one to show her parents,” Hundley recalls.

After shopping, students are treated to hair cuts and styling by a team of local hair dressers who also volunteer their services.The morning is capped off with a buffet breakfast donated by Sally Tomatoes Restaurant.

The owner “donates 100 percent of that breakfast, it’s awesome and we are so appreciative,” Hundley says.Organizing and paying for the event is no easy task. Each club chapter raises thousands of dollars to pay for the students clothes and supplies. For Sebastopol that means raising at least $1,750 for the 10 or so students they are hosting from the River to Coast Children Services. The Petaluma chapter will host 30 students referred by agencies including 4Cs (The Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County), COTS (Committee on the Shelterless) and the Boys and Girls Club. The remainder come from the efforts of the North Bay chapter serving Cotati/Rohnert Park.

The money is raised through multiple events; pasta feeds, trivia nights and fireworks sales in July, for example. For Vito, the experience is one he’d like to see grow into more service projects for area youth in need.

“We are trying to do a lot with a few (members). We absolutely would like more members, there are a lot of people out there who want to help and we can provide a place for would-be volunteers to do that,” he says.

But for now, club members and students look forward to events like the Spree, where they can come together to enrich each others lives.

“As much as the children get out of this, the members get just as much, if not more. It’s a privilege to go shopping with these kids. This is something every single member looks forward to,” Hundley says.

“Part of our hope is that down the road the kids will remember 20–30 and will want to volunteer for something like this. One of our members told me she received services as a child in need and it means a lot to her to be giving back in her way,” she adds.