Operation School Bell fills a vital need for local schoolchildren
Senior Editor Joy Jenkins lends a helping hand.
My holiday season received a heaping helping of warmth even before I enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal. In mid-November, I had the opportunity to assist an organization that is doing quiet yet significant work for Tulsa’s children.
Located in a nondescript building near The University of Tulsa campus, Operation School Bell is filling a vital need for area schoolchildren. Inside, groups of dedicated volunteers jut in and out of row upon row of child-sized clothing. From shelves full of jeans to racks of coats, shirts and skirts to a wall full of shoes, the room includes enough new clothing to serve hundreds of students who need it. In all, the program will clothe 20,0000 kindergarten through fifth-grade students this school year alone — at no cost to the students or their schools.
Operation School Bell is a program of the Assistance League of Tulsa, a chapter of the national Assistance League, which was founded in 1967. An all-volunteer organization of 200 members, the organization is focused on serving the community through supporting children awaiting foster care, caring for the community’s infants and providing support for elderly citizens. In addition to donations from community foundations and others, funding for Operation School Bell comes from the Bargains Resale Shop, located next door, which sells donated items and is staffed by volunteers.
On the day I visited, Operation School Bell was expecting about 40 children from two elementary schools: Grove and Union Public Schools’ Rosa Parks. When I arrived at 9 a.m., volunteers were already hard at work assembling the health kits that are distributed to students. I helped them add soap, toothbrushes, tissues, shampoo, combs and other items to large Ziploc bags in the last few minutes before the students were set to arrive.
Once the first bus pulled up, with Grove Elementary students, about 20 children piled into the gathering area at Operation School Bell. One by one, volunteers called out students’ names to lead them through their “shopping” experience. As a newcomer, I needed some training before assisting a student, so I shadowed Janet Main, the Assistance League’s vice president of public relations, as she helped Jalen Smith-Hallum make his clothing selections.
Main, who says her grandmother status gives her an edge when working with young children, spoke softly and gently as she led Jalen through the racks of clothing, helping him choose his items.
Each of the children at Operation School Bell seemed to have a different approach to making their selections. The outgoing Jalen knew exactly what he wanted and easily chose his favorite colors and patterns from the hanging racks. He was especially excited to visit the wall of shoes, where he would choose a brand-new pair of sneakers, thanks to the Richards Foundation.
Recommended by their counselors, the children who visit Operation School Bell often arrive without the basic clothing needed for school. As I observed the other students making their selections, I noticed that many were wearing shirts and pants that did not fit properly, some had no socks and some were wearing shoes that were virtually falling off their feet. Volunteers say that some students arrive without undergarments or the proper outerwear for cold weather.
Soon I was prepared to assist a student on my own. By that time, the second school of the day had arrived, and I was paired with Mariah Figures (pictured), a student at Rosa Parks Elementary. Unlike the gregarious Jalen, Mariah was shy and quiet. She told me that her favorite color is pink, so after picking out a bright-pink striped shirt and some jeans — complete with tiny rhinestones on the back — she emerged from the dressing room with a large grin, showing off her new finds. After fitting Mariah with a new pair of shoes, new socks, a jacket, a coat, a belt and gloves, I handed her the shopping bag, which was bursting at the brim. Mariah also got to choose a new children’s book to take home.
My last child to assist was Rosa Parks student Cierra Green. Older than Mariah, Cierra was enthusiastic and bubbly, excited to choose some new items to take home. We picked out a pair of Capri pants, a skirt, two shirts, a quilted jacket and a coat for Cierra and, like Mariah, she modeled her new clothes proudly, turning like a fashion model in front of the mirror.
Because the Assistance League has achieved so much success with its program for elementary-school students, the organization is looking to broaden its reach even further.
Assistance League President Suzanne Kneale says the group plans to start a pilot program in March clothing 200 4-year-olds. Additionally, Main says that in the future, the Assistance League would like to serve middle-school students as well. She says the group would target the four to five neediest schools in the area.
Judging by my experience at Operation School Bell, I know the volunteers will be able to handle the additional students. I was impressed at the ease with which they worked with the children and helped them pick out their items, making each child feel comfortable, loved and cared for. I can just imagine the students returning to school in their new outfits, showing them off to their friends and not having to worry about venturing into the cold without a coat.
What better Christmas present could they, or I, ask for?
Editor’s note: For more information about the Assistance League of Tulsa and Operation School Bell, visit www.altulsa.org.