Catherine Fils’s three children were all starting at new schools. And this year, she was determined to continue their annual tradition.
“Every first day of school, for the first week,” she said, “you’ve got to have new clothes.”
Ms. Fils wanted to make sure her children — Anthony, 17; Jalen, 14; and Jazmine, 11 — could pick out new outfits and feel confident on their first days at new schools on Staten Island.
The family had been living in an apartment in Brooklyn a few years ago, but after issues arose there, Ms. Fils moved her family into a homeless shelter. Soon after they moved, the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the city and schooling became virtual.
Ms. Fils, 33, worked hard to keep her children in good spirits. They played board games and did puzzles.
“Something new or different,” Ms. Fils said, “just so they could take their mind off of everything.”
But strains in the shelter mounted. The children had trouble connecting to the internet and were sometimes unable to hear the lessons.
“It was a whole fight,” Ms. Fils said about navigating online school.
On top of the technological problems, Ms. Fils was taking her children to stay with family members on the days she had work as a home health aide. She would wake them up at 5 or 6 a.m. to go to relatives’ homes before her shifts began at 8. After about a year, Ms. Fils’s children were exhausted, and she decided she had to quit her job and help them with school full-time.
“It wasn’t easy, because then you got to think about, you’re losing money,” she said. “You’re making it worse.”
In June 2021, Ms. Fils and her family were able to move into an apartment on Staten Island. Her children were excited, especially about having a kitchen, which they had not had in the shelter — all of her children know how to cook, and Anthony especially likes to invent new recipes, Ms. Fils said.
As summer break wound down, Ms. Fils was relieved that her children would once again be attending school in person, but the costs of supplies and clothing loomed.
“At first I was like OK, thank God they get to go back,” Ms. Fils said. “But then I was like, dang, now I’ve got to buy school supplies. And as they get older, the supplies get more.”
This year, sensing a need from the families they work with, Children’s Aid, one of the nine organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, set aside $150,000 from The Fund to distribute Target gift cards to help with back-to-school expenses.
“We wanted to make sure that we could get the cards in hand very quickly, and get them into families’ hands very quickly,” said Georgia Boothe, the executive vice president of Children’s Aid. Close to 900 families received gift cards totaling $100 to $500.
“Many of them appreciated that we offered it as a support to them, rather than them having to express their needs specifically,” Ms. Boothe said. “They were incredibly grateful for that.”
Ms. Fils received a $300 Target gift card from Children’s Aid, which she used to buy school supplies and new clothes for her children. She said that Anthony was especially excited about a NASCAR T-shirt, and Jalen looked forward to wearing a top featuring anime characters.
Alyssa Tucker, 29, who received a $100 gift card, was grateful that the help from Children’s Aid gave her the flexibility to spend it on what made the most sense for her family. She already had school supplies and clothes, so she bought her 5-year-old daughter, Autumn, a pumpkin-shape bucket for trick-or-treating. And in preparation for Christmas, she bought Barbies, which she has hidden in her closet.
Among the many New York City parents concerned about the return to in-person school was Debrina Mitchell.
In the spring, when her 9-year-old son, Elijah, was heading back to the classroom, she realized she didn’t have new clothes for him. “I didn’t expect for him to go back to school,” said Ms. Mitchell, 32.
Ms. Mitchell confided in a counselor from the HOPE Program, a job training program that she had participated in, about her worries. The counselor helped her get in touch with Community Service Society, another organization supported by The Fund. With its help, Ms. Mitchell purchased $330.91 in new clothing for Elijah.
“I felt so happy about it,” Ms. Mitchell said. The new clothes, including T-shirts with Spider-Man and dinosaurs on them, made Elijah “feel so excited” about returning to school in person. Ms. Mitchell said that she was especially proud of how much her son valued his new clothing.
“I was happy at the fact that he appreciated it,” she said. “That right there meant that it was worth asking for help.”