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Meryl Gaelen Japha '78 is co-president and co-chair of the board of directors of the Back to School Shop, a nonprofit that provides economically disadvantaged school children with clothing and school supplies to help build their confidence for each new school year. Adding to a successful career as a purchasing agent, Japha has been an active volunteer for 25 years in Stamford, Connecticut, where she lives with her husband, Ron. She received the Elayne and James Schoke Jewish Family Service 2019 40th Annual Mitzvah Award, and in 2015, she was named Volunteer of the Year by the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien. The Connecticut Council of Family Service Agencies also has recognized her service by naming her its 2016 Family Champion.
Tell us about your work with the Back to School Shop?
Back to School Shop is an annual event held prior to the start of school when children shop for new clothing and school supplies at no charge, in a pop-up store created just for them. They can “shop” for a brand-new winter coat, hat, gloves, shirt, pants, underwear, socks, sneakers, backpack, school supplies and books. While children shop with volunteer personal shoppers, their parents and caregivers visit the Japha Family Resource Center to meet with representatives of local agencies who provide information about how to access critical community services.
This is a program in which my parents were involved in New Jersey. When I observed the program, I knew I wanted to bring it to Connecticut. A friend of mine joined me, and together four years ago, we launched the program. We have had nearly 800 Stamford elementary school students participate in our program and over 500 community volunteers engaged.
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you in your life?
My Dickinson liberal-arts education taught me how to think critically, to analyze issues and come up with solutions. It taught me how to interpret the world and to contribute to it in a meaningful way. As a history major, I learned to build on the culture and knowledge of what came before me. I realized that through concerted efforts and group ethics, you can make a tangible change in the world around you.
What inspired your gifts to Dickinson?
I’ve been very impressed with the expanding opportunities for students, both in and out of the classroom.
Why do you feel that it is important to give back to Dickinson?
I know that private colleges and universities have a lot to offer students and struggle to raise the funds necessary to continue offering academic excellence. I have always been impressed with the quality of students who attend Dickinson and felt that, if in some small way I could help them get the most out of their experience there, I am happy to do so.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Dickinson?
My favorite memory is seeing Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel in the cafeteria during my freshman and sophomore years just before they became famous. And, of course, meeting my future husband who was at Dickinson Law.
Can you tell us about your other hobbies, interests, etc.?
Volunteering has been my passion since my children started elementary school. I started by leading the giftwrap fundraising event and chairing the annual book fair. I then became involved in my synagogue, where I served as president. I also enjoy attending Broadway shows with my husband and going to the Jersey shore with friends and family.
What advice you would give to today’s students?
Take advantage of anything and everything that is made available to you, and don’t let the fear of failure hold you back.
Published February 3, 2020