Saved by the bell

Aug 16, 2017
Mercedes Ciani assists a student who is selecting clothes at Operation School Bell, a program that provides students with new clothes for school and is housed at the Assistance League of Austin, which raises funds for the program. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

The 9-year-old girl emerges from the dressing room wearing a T-shirt that says “Rebel.”

She peeks tentatively into the mirror, then raises her hands into the air with excitement.

“I love it!” she exclaims, then adds, “I feel like I’m at the mall!”

Children who visit the Assistance League of Austin’s Operation School Bell facility may come from hard places — the Salvation Army, SAFE, Austin Independent School District Refugee Services, Saint Louise House and the Foundation for the Homeless are among the social service agencies with clients visiting in August — but when they look in the mirror, for a minute, their worries disappear.

“They get this huge smile,” said Grizelda Black, vice president of marketing and communications for the Assistance League of Austin. “That smile is worth a million bucks.”

Since it started in 1984, the Assistance League of Austin’s Operation School Bell program has clothed more than 87,000 children in the Austin area. During the 2016-2017 school year, Operation School Bell outfitted more than 3,700 pre-K to fifth-grade students at its facility, provided nearly 900 students with items from its uniform closets located inside local middle and high schools and purchased clothing for more than 1,700 preteens and teens who each received $120 in clothing items at stores like Target — through its Teen Outfitters Project.

“These kids wouldn’t have new clothes otherwise,” Assistance League of Austin President Judy Kennedy said. “The program was designed for the community, and all the money stays in the community.”

In August, Operation School Bell focuses on clothing children from local social service agencies. From September to April, the program partners with three area school districts — Austin, Del Valle and Manor — that task teachers, counselors and parent support specialists with identifying students most in need of new clothing. Operation School Bell gives each elementary school a date that its students may visit the facility; it is up to the school to arrange bus transportation. Generally between 30 and 45 children visit the store Tuesday-Friday; the store is typically closed on Mondays for restocking. All clothes are new and are purchased primarily using funds raised by Assistance League of Austin’s Thrift House resale store.

Each child who visits Operation School Bell receives a tote bag, five shirts, two pairs of pants (or a pair of pants and a skort for girls), a jacket, underwear, socks, a belt, a $25 shoe card to buy shoes at Payless ShoeSource, two books, a magazine and a hygiene kit.

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On a recent Tuesday, little boys agonized in front of stacks of T-shirts featuring characters such as Pokemon, Spider-Man and Minions, and little girls modeled jackets that came in a rainbow of colors. Shopping sessions typically last between 30 and 45 minutes, and every child who visits receives their own volunteer to walk them through the process and offer encouragement.

“You look darling,” volunteer Dee Furr told one little girl as she emerged from her dressing room with a grin. “Look at those pants! They’re perfect!”

For many of these children, this is the first time they have ever been shopping.

“I would see students when they would come back from coming here and they were so proud,” said Black, who first learned about the program as a Spanish teacher at the now-closed Porter Middle School. “They seemed a little taller, they seemed to have a huge grin on their face. I said, ‘Wow, if that little demonstration of love can make that big a difference in this child, then I want to be part of that.’”

The organization’s buyers take cues from stores like Old Navy, Kohl’s and the Children’s Place — as well as from their own grandchildren — to determine what’s popular for that season. Then they purchase those items at wholesale prices.

“We talk with the vendors and get the best price we can and the cutest clothes we can,” said Rinda Gildner, a former teacher who now serves as the league’s vice president of membership and a shirt buyer. “So often when a child is absent you say, ‘Why were you absent?’ (And they say) ‘I didn’t have any clothes.’ It’s so important to have the right things to wear and to have it be a little bit fashionable. It means so much to kids.”

The Assistance League of Austin is an all-volunteer philanthropic organization that aims to improve the well-being of the Austin community through various programs including Operation School Bell. Kennedy said while Operation School Bell typically outfits children August through April, they frequently make exceptions for emergency cases.

“We’ve had calls several times from parent support specialists where there’s been a death of one of the parents and children need clothes to wear to the funeral. That is the saddest,” Kennedy said. “We’re providing something that is absolutely a need, and they will wear those clothes to school, but they need them right now for this occasion. We reach a lot of need. Sometimes they are very sad cases. But we hope we’re improving their lives.”