Miami-Dade County

Style Saves helps needy kids with back-to-school shopping

Samantha Morales ran her finger around the edges of a bright yellow bow and then held it next to a blue one for comparison. Which one should she pick? Which one would go best with her long, black hair and her school uniform? She sighed, weighed down with the decision.

“I like everything!” said the 8-year-old, gesturing to include the table of accessories. “It’s hard to pick.”

Samantha, who will be entering the third grade at BridgePrep Academy, a charter school in Miami, was among more than 250 kids shopping for back-to-school clothes at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Saturday, thanks to the non-profit Style Saves. Another 250 were expected to pack their purple Style Saves plastic bags with uniform shirts, pants, shoes and accessories on Sunday.

This is the fourth year Style Saves hosts the event for underprivileged children who have been identified by Miami-Dade Public Schools and various community groups, including Lotus House, Irie Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Some came with their their parents, but many families were bused in for a day of shopping, makeovers, hairstyling, face painting — even vision screening.

“This is amazing,” Mellanese Anderson said as she looked out at the large meeting room that was set up in department-store style with volunteers helping families pick out what they needed. “There’s pretty much everything here.”

This was Anderson’s first time at a Style Saves back-to-school shopping event. Laid off from her job with the state earlier this year, she doesn’t have the money to buy her children what they need. She said the past few months have been a humbling experience.

“If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I would do,” Anderson said. “I wouldn’t know where to go.”

Anderson wanted to score uniforms — two polo shirts and two pants — for sons Dylan, 9, and Jean, 3. But while Jean clung to his mother’s dress as she wended through the display tables, Dylan kept trying to return to the socks.

“I love those socks,” said the Norland Elementary fourth-grader. “They got designs. You see those gray stripe blue ones? Those are the ones.”

Style Saves was founded in 2011 by Rachael Russell, a Ford fashion stylist, who recruited her philanthropic fashion-minded friends to help. She got the idea for the event during a back-to-school shopping trip with her two younger brothers.

“I realized there were lots of children whose parents couldn’t afford to do this,” she recalled. “So since I’m in fashion this was just a natural. I really do believe that clothes can build confidence.”

That first year she hoped to dress 10 students, but she raised enough money to help 50. This year, after raking in about $100,000 in a swim week fashion show fundraiser, the program expects to outfit 675 students.

All the money goes to buying new clothes. “I want the kids to feel good. I want them to have the same opportunities as their peers,” she added.

In addition to her friends, a group she calls Team No Sleep, Russell has also secured contributions from Perry Ellis, TOMS shoes and other companies. All the booths set up at the Arsht Center were manned by volunteers who donated their goods and services, from the nibbles to the drinks to the face-painting.

At the Davis Vision booth, volunteers provided free vision screenings to students. Those who were identified as needing follow ups were given appointments at VisionWorks, where they will receive free eyeware. This couldn’t come at a better time for Maria Behar, whose daughter Sarit Bory-Behar, a 12th-grader at Homestead Senior High, needs glasses.

“This is an enormous help,” said the mother of four. “I don’t have vision insurance and a pair of glasses costs more than we can afford.”

Across the room, Katherina Georges, 14, was getting a manicure just in time for the first day of school. The Brownsville Middle School eighth-grader admired her Preppy Pink polish with a wide grin. “I feel special,” she told her mother, Ronide Jean-Francoise.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho greeted the families as they streamed into the room. He called Style Saves’ efforts “God’s work.”

“Thank goodness there are people who step up and show up to help the more fragile parts of our community,” he said.