East Brunswick EA Bear’s Den clothes families in dignity

By Patrick Rumaker

On a cold Saturday morning in February, the first thing that catches your eye when you step into the basement of the East Brunswick Education Association (EBEA) office is a prom dress. The EBEA Bear Necessities Clothing Den, which takes its name from the district mascot, is preparing for prom season. Across the room, you see a few racks of coats.

“This room was never supposed to be used,” EBEA President Dana Zimbicki says as she points you to a door to another room. “We just needed more space.”

Now you enter what looks like the clothing section of a trendy thrift shop. Several aisles of good quality shirts, jackets and complete outfits hang on racks, organized by size. Tables are filled with neatly folded and sorted pants, sweatshirts and sweaters. Shoes to match the prom dresses are displayed on a tall shelf against a wall. Bear Den guests—East Brunswick residents struggling to afford clothing for their children—are shopping for school and play clothes, trying everything on in one of two spacious dressing rooms.

On spacious shelves behind a curtain, spring and summer outfits are stored in bins for the spring and summer season. Everything, the shirts, the pants, the dresses, the socks, the coats, the shoes, the undergarments and the prom dresses are all free.

EBEA President Dana Zimbicki and EBEA member JoAnn Peterson sort clothing in The Bear’s Den, a thrift shop for families in need, created by EBEA and developed by Peterson.

“It’s truly a community effort,” Zimbicki says.

Zimbicki notes that the owner of Broehl’s Landscaping, John Broehl, is heading up the collection of prom and semiformal dresses. He gets the word out through his business and in his role as a deacon at St. Bartholomew’s Roman Catholic Church. An EBEA member did the electrical work to install the lighting and much of the infrastructure of the Bear’s Den was donated: the carpeting, the racks, the storage bins, and even the paint on the walls.

Area businesses, community organizations and charities have a hand, or paw, in the success of the Bear’s Den, including VFW Post #133, Lowes, Home Depot, Carpets and More, Swift Electrical Supply, Alpha Delta Kappa, Pi Kappa Phi-Rutgers, the Middlesex County Retirees’ Education Association (MCREA), the East Brunswick Youth Council, the student councils at Robert Frost and Central Elementary schools, the East Brunswick High School staff, Flooring Installation Systems, Inc., All-American Improvements, Eighteen Lumber, Sherwin-Williams, and the Family and Friends of Jill Price. Each of these groups have donated either their time, their talent, their treasure or all three to the Bear’s Den.

An NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant funded the clothing racks, shopping baskets and storage bins. The logos of EBEA and NJEA PRIDE adorn the walls.

EBEA members and members of MCREA volunteer their time staffing the Bear’s Den and donate much of the clothing.

Bear Den guests—East Brunswick residents struggling to afford clothing for their children—are shopping for school and play clothes, trying everything on in one of two spacious dressing rooms.

The East Brunswick Education Foundation (EBEF) recently provided funding to purchase a washer and dryer. EBEA partnered with EBEF. Through the foundation’s 501(c)(3) status, the Bear’s Den can accept donations, which are tax deductible.

EBEA also partners with Aldersgate United Methodist Church-Crisis Room, which runs a pantry and collects clothing for children and adults. Donated clothing that is damaged or otherwise not suitable for students finds its way to the church, which can sell the clothing by the pound to purchase food for its pantry.

“Oh, that looks cute!” Zimbicki suddenly exclaims as a six-year-old guest tries on a pink winter jacket with her mother’s assistance. With the air of a sales clerk, Zimbicki steps away to enthusiastically show her guests a similar jacket in a different color.

As Zimbicki and other EBEA and MCREA volunteers manage the Bear’s Den, it’s easy to forget that they are school employees and union leaders, not retailers.

Getting started

At an EBEA Representative Council two years ago, EBEA members discussed the growing need among their students for clothes to wear to school. Beyond the issue of needing warm clothing for the winter, not having appropriate clothing for school contributed to chronic absenteeism among some students.

JoAnn Peterson, a second-grade teacher at Lawrence Brook Elementary School, quickly volunteered to head up a project to meet the need, saying, “That’s right up my alley!” With that, The Bear Necessities Clothing Den was born.

Peterson had previously volunteered in Point Pleasant, sorting clothing donations in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. She took what she had learned from that experience to create the Bear’s Den. Peterson started with donations from EBEA members, who she said provided most of the clothes. Later, Peterson sought donations through other venues, such as the EBEA Facebook page and community partnerships.

The Bear’s Den opened its doors to the public on April 14, 2018. It is officially open the second Saturday morning and fourth Thursday afternoon of each month.

It’s also unofficially open as needed during EBEA office hours. Zimbicki explained that the East Brunswick school security officers bring homeless families who are sheltered within the township to the Bear’s Den so that their children have one less thing to worry about as they enter the district’s schools.

Middlesex County REA member Gwen Botwinick and EBEA member Lise Noppenberger are among the many NJEA members who volunteer their time in the Bear’s Den.

“Our main goal is helping the kids,” Peterson says.

Peterson explains that the school district’s Student Services Department distributes a flier to families who may need what the Bear’s Den has to offer. The flier, under EBEA letterhead reads, “The East Brunswick Education Association would like to invite you to shop at our EBEA Bear Necessities Clothing Den. This invite is intended only for those who need a little extra help in obtaining clothing and other essential items for their school-aged children.”

The flier provides details to clarify who is eligible to shop at the Bear’s Den, its hours, and what is available in the store.

Peterson notes that some families in need are not comfortable shopping at The Bear’s Den. Volunteers find a way to help them.

As Zimbicki and other EBEA and MCREA volunteers manage the Bear’s Den, it’s easy to forget that they are school employees and union leaders, not retailers.

“We had a couple of children not coming to school because they didn’t have shoes,” Peterson says. “We have volunteers who will quietly get the students what they need.”

Retiree generosity

Peterson singled out MCREA members for their support of the Bear’s Den.

“They’re very generous,” she says. “They donate all kinds of clothing—underwear and socks—and they stop in to see what we need.”

MCREA member Gwen Botwinick, a special education teacher who retired from East Brunswick in June 2018, is one of the volunteers at the Bear’s Den. She spends much of her time sorting through clothing donations, separating out those items she knows that students are not likely to wear. She’s sensitive to the feelings of the students who will be wearing the outfits in hallways of school, knowing that feeling confident among one’s peers has an impact on self-confidence and academic achievement.

“I want all kids to feel comfortable being in school,” Botwinick says, noting that poverty is not restricted to any one area of the community. “We have guests from all over East Brunswick—not from any one school.”

Clothing that doesn’t make the cut is not wasted. It finds its way to Aldersgate Church, where it may be more suitable for older adults.

A success

Beyond serving families in need, Peterson noted that the Bear’s Den has helped meet instructional needs. Students at the East Brunswick campus of the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical School provide dry cleaning services, and special needs students in the district work with the clothing as part of life skills training.

Peterson, Zimbicki, Botwinick, and other volunteers beam with pride when talking about The Bear’s Den and they marvel at its success.

“When this started, I wondered if we could pull it off,” Botwinick says. “We were really surprised by the number of people who come here.”

Local associations looking to replicate EBEA’s Bear Necessities Clothing Den are welcome to email Zimbicki at ebea575@hotmail.com

Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review. He can be reached at prumaker@njea.org.

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