Operation School Bell helps kids earn self-respect

After my mother died last December, one of the toughest things my dad and I faced was what to do with her clothes. It took a while to let them go, but finally, after asking around, we decided to donate them to the Assistance League of Las Vegas to go into the Thrift Shop.

It wasn’t easy to box up clothes, purses and accessories that we had seen her wear. Every piece held a memory.

We know she would have approved of our decision for one simple reason: The money from the sale of her things in the league’s thrift shop went to sustain Operation School Bell and buy new clothes for underprivileged children.

On Saturday, I went to see how it worked. Seeing the delight in children’s faces at being able to choose two outfits reassured me that my mother would have approved.

Operation School Bell operates behind the Assistance League Thrift Shop at 6446 W. Charleston Blvd., and provides new clothes, including a jacket, slacks, tops, underwear, socks and shoes. Children also receive a new book, new school supplies, a health packet with tooth brushes and deodorant, and a new blanket. They selected the styles and colors, escorted by volunteers who help with finding the right sizes.

Saturday, 65 children from Wengert Elementary School were brought in by bus. I accompanied Jo Mitchell and Lee Anne Bray from the league’s Desert Sage Auxiliary as they helped two children make their choices and find the right sizes.

The first child was a serious-looking first-grader who held back her smiles, reluctant to show her missing baby teeth. This little girl should have been a personal shopper, she was so good at picking out first the pants, then a top that made the pants pop. She left with a coral outfit with a happy face on the front and tasteful lace on the back, and a turquoise outfit with a touch of bling. She put the outfits together without any prompting. Then she chose sparkly lavender shoes.

A third-grade boy (with no missing teeth) knew what he wanted and opted for basic black jeans and a shirt with a guitar on the front. “I play the drums,” he said. His second outfit was blue on blue. He beamed when he opened the dressing room door and won praise for his sharp outfits.

Principal Sindy Hidalgo shared the backgrounds of these two children. The little girl has a mom who works, a dad with cancer and there are five children in the family.

The boy lives with his mom and her sister and between the two women there are seven children. His dad left.

School officials select the children for Operation School Bell. By the time these children headed back to the room where they had waited patiently to be called, each one had a large, bulging bag to take home. Bags were made for another 20 children at the school who couldn’t make the field trip.

Ten homeless children attend Wengert. “We have a family we know is sleeping in a car,” Hidalgo said. But efforts to help them fail because the mother won’t accept help.

Hildago said that many of the children came to Operation School Bell dressed in their best clothes as a matter of pride.

The real thanks goes to the 400 Assistance League volunteers who work without pay to make it all happen. The only paid employee is a porter/janitor. The women’s organization does everything else.

There are other volunteers who come in for Operation School Bell who aren’t league members. Students from Bishop Gorman High School, male and female, were volunteering that day and helping the kids shop and get shoes that fit.

Kenia Hui, 28, who works in the banking industry, stopped by to volunteer without any group association, something she did on her own. “I truly enjoy giving back and making someone else’s day,” she said. Allowing them to choose “helps them with their own identity.”

One of the highlights of the morning was watching children emerge from dressing rooms, proud of their choices of new duds and looking for approval.

Most volunteers had stories to tell of children’s reactions. “You bought all this for me?” “I get to keep these?”

Judy Trent, co-chairwoman of Operation School Bell, said sometimes the children break her heart. She remembers a child who said, “Do you think I could have a pencil? My mommy can’t afford to buy me pencils.”

“We spend about $75 on each child and we stretch our dollars,” Trent said. Donations, cash and otherwise, help stretch those dollars.

Operation School Bell has clothed more than 100,000 children since it was chartered locally in 1979, Trent said. In the 2012-13 school year, 8,300 schoolchildren were helped.

Not certain what kind of Thanksgiving these children are having, but spending Saturday morning with them made me give thanks all week.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at 702-383-0275.

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