By CEcILiA CHAN
GSN Managing Editor
Ezinne Okaru held a burgundy-color T-shirt up to her chest.
“Do you think this shirt will look good on me?” the 11-year-old Gilbert girl asked her volunteer shopper.
“Yes, I do,” said Ahwatukee resident Carmen Solis, who added because it was Kohl’s store brand she would get an additional 20 percent off.
Ezinne flitted among the racks of clothing excited with the prospect of new clothes for her return from summer break to Ashland Ranch Elementary.
“I sort of feel nervous,” Ezinne said. “I don’t know what to buy yet. I’m glad Mr. Joe (Leon, the branch manager) picked me to do this. Obviously, it’s a struggle for my parents.”
Ezinne was one of 115 youths, aged 6-12 from Gilbert, Mesa and Chandler, shopping for school clothes last week at the Gilbert Kohl’s on Williams Field Road and Val Vista Drive.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of the East Valley has been holding an annual Back 2 School shopping for its club kids since 1995.
The event actually started in 1989 with one club but six years later all 11 club branches participated in the event, explained Lisa Ellis, spokeswoman for the East Valley organization.
Approximately 400 club youths shopped for new clothes and shoes last week at four Kohl locations in the Valley.
The club’s 120 teen members were scheduled to do their shopping this weekend. The youths also have received a backpack filled with school supplies from the club.
The purpose of the event is to send children back to school on equal footing and not have clothing be an issue for them, Ellis said.
To be able to go to school in nice, clean clothes helps with self-confidence, she added.
“Sometimes just that ability to have confidence in yourself allows kids to excel,” Ellis said. “We see kids and youths come to the clubs and have shoes that don’t fit. On a daily basis we see something on the ground level that gives us a bit more insight and see the needs of some of these families.”
For over 50 years Boys & Girls Clubs of the East Valley has served more than 35,000 youth and teens, 5-18, with programs and opportunities at 11 branches in Chandler, Tempe, Queen Creek, Mesa, Guadalupe, Gilbert, Laveen, Sacaton and the Mesa Arts Academy.
At the shopping spree, each youth received a $125 gift card, funded by community donations. They were paired with volunteer shopping helpers.
Mesa Mayor John Giles thanked the Boys and Girls Club for the event.
“Every day, every weekend, they do the heavy lifting with young people,” he told volunteers, including a few uniformed Mesa Police officers.
Giles was joined by Gilbert Vice Mayor Eddie Cook and Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke. All three helped youths shop for new attire.
Ellis told the volunteers each child has a shopping list and their task included keeping track of the spending.
“Stay as close as you can to the budget you have,” she told them. “Make the $125 go as far as you can.”
She added volunteers can’t be in a dressing room with a child and never to leave a child unattended in the store.
Ellis noted the group was the largest she has seen to date at the annual event.
“Everything you do today helps get kids back to school with confidence,” she told the volunteers.
Chandler resident Hunter Pace has gone shopping with a child from the Boys and Girls Club for several years.
He’s a member of Chandler Compadres, a fundraising organization with beneficiaries, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of the East Valley, he said.
That aside, “obviously, it’s giving back to the community,” Pace said. “It’s pretty cool, you can see its effect on kids’ lives.”
For the event, Pace was paired with Yondir Orozco, a 6-year-old from Chandler. It was the first time for the San Marcos Elementary student.
“We got his uniform, a couple of red polo shirts, couple of blue jeans and now we got to get his shoes and socks,” Pace said as the two headed over to the shoe section.
“What kind of shoes do you want?” Hunter asked Yondir. “You want an athletic shoe or a Converse?”
“Red,” the boy responded.
By the time the two finished, the tally was $120 for two pairs of jeans, two polo tops, a pair of shoes and a bundle of socks.
Ezinne and Solis were having a cashier price check the items they’ve collected in a shopping bag.
“How much are the Vans?” Solis asked the cashier about her choice of shoes.
At $59.99 even with the 20 percent discount, that was almost half the budget, Solis told Ezinne.
“You really want these?” she asked the girl.
Ezinne responded “yes.”
But after the cashier tallied the remaining items such as jean shorts, a dress, hair Scrunchies, socks and T-shirts, they were at $95 and Ezinne still had items she needed to buy, including undergarments.
“I really don’t want the shoes,” Ezinne said, leaving them behind with some clothing as they continued their shopping.
Solis said she didn’t mind driving the 30 minutes from her home to get to Kohl’s by 6:30 a.m.
“It’s my first time,” said Solis, adding that her daughter Jessica received a scholarship from the club. “I’m going to do this every year now. The kids are our world, our future. We have to be there for them.”