They left the J.C. Penney clutching shopping bags filled with warm hoodies, stylish new sneakers and, in one, a shiny sky-blue coat featuring characters from “Frozen.”
Thanks to donations from the community, roughly 80 kids who were forced out of the Yale Park Apartments last month because of almost 2,000 code violations were treated to a shopping spree Monday afternoon.
Accompanied by teachers, counselors and some parents, students from Kennedy Elementary and Lewis and Clark Middle School got two hours and between $110 and $130 each to buy new clothes at the J.C. Penney at the Westroads Mall. Each got to pick out a free book, too.
The trip was funded partly by the Assistance League of Omaha’s Operation School Bell program, which uses donations and grants to help students living in poverty buy new clothes and shoes. A local business, which wishes to remain anonymous, donated to the Omaha Public Schools Foundation to fund the new clothes for the elementary students from Kennedy.
“When we heard about the children who were displaced from the apartments, we knew this was something we really needed to be involved with,” said Suzanne Hinman of the Assistance League. “We can’t stand the thought of a child going to school or being out in the Omaha cold weather without warm clothing.”
Five hundred people — all refugees from Myanmar — were evacuated from the north Omaha apartment complex Sept. 20 after city building inspectors found serious code violations, including gas leaks, bug infestations and faulty plumbing.
After some stayed temporarily on cots in city shelters, most families have found new homes. But many left furniture and other belongings behind to prevent the spread of bedbugs and other pests.
The Omaha Public Schools students who lived at Yale Park had received $200 gift cards from funds raised by the OPS Foundation, but teachers discovered that many Lewis and Clark students were using them to buy household items for the whole family. This shopping trip was just for them.
Hinman said she hoped that the students, who have dealt with plenty of upheaval in the last month, got a boost of self-confidence from Monday’s shopping trip.
“It’s hard to go to school if you don’t have the right kinds of shoes and clothing, especially in some of our winters,” she said.
About 175 OPS students — plus babies and toddlers — lived in the apartments at 34th Avenue and Lake Street.
“When we found out at school that they weren’t going to go back to their homes, it was pretty rocking for everybody,” said Naomi Fox, an English as a second language teacher at Lewis and Clark. “But these kids are so incredibly resilient.”
Fox accompanied a group of three middle school girls through the store, helping eighth-grader Eh Ter pick out a set of fleecy Mickey Mouse pajamas and steering the girls to the aisle with pairs of the ever-popular Converse sneakers.
“I don’t know why, I only like black,” Eh Ter said as she moved through the clothing racks.
Students calculated sale prices with the help of their teachers and carefully considered their purchases. ESL teacher Molly Mertz urged one boy to look at shoes — he could use more than just the pair of sneakers he was wearing, she said.
“They’re so humble,” Kennedy Elementary Principal Tony Gunter said. “They’re checking prices, making sure it’s not too expensive.”
Across the store, Mertz gave it her all: she tried to get three preteen boys excited about shopping for pants.
“OK guys, what is something you really need?” she said. “Pants? Coats? Shirts?”
She held up different styles, colors and fabrics, searching for a nod of approval.
The boys didn’t know their pant sizes. Check the tag on your friend’s pants, Mertz instructed one of them.
They were undecided: Did they want jeans or sweatpants?
“Do you like them? I think we’ll take them,” she said as one boy held up a pair of jeans in front of him.
After buying some hoodies and other warm clothes, eighth-grader Eh Ler later conceded that shopping was at least better than math class.
Eh Ler said the last month has been “a little bit crazy.”
“But it’s fine, it’s getting better,” he said. His family has moved into a different apartment — he said it’s nicer than their old Yale Park unit — and hopes to save up and buy a house within the next year.
Gunter said his school has been trying to maintain stability for the students who were suddenly uprooted. Most Yale Park families decided to keep their kids at Kennedy, even if they moved across town. A donor is paying for two additional buses to provide transportation.
“We’re just trying to give them the best experience possible,” Gunter said.