Assistance League of Phoenix — Operation School Bell Help on Wheels
Friday, August 2, 2019
By Ashley Ford
Operation School Bell has been making a difference to underserved children across the country for more than 100 years, and locally in the Valley for more than 30. What started as a group of volunteers who saw kids in need of school clothing has grown into a core program in all 122 Assistance League chapters across the nation. Here in the Valley, Assistance League of Phoenix serves the largest population of children in the country, thanks to its Operation School Bell program.
Operation School Bell provides school clothing to low-income youth in the greater Phoenix area to help improve the lives of children and families. “Families really are struggling. Some of them have to decide, ‘Do I spend money on school clothes or utility bills?’” We hope to be able to alleviate that concern for families and take care of those needs,” said Aimee Runyon, CEO of Assistance League of Phoenix.
“When Operation School Bell started, we served just the schools surrounding our office that could get to us,” Runyon said. “One of our biggest goals has been to expand Operation School Bell because the need is so great.” With both a physical Philanthropic Center and a Delivering Dreams Bus equipped with mobile dressing rooms, Assistance League of Phoenix is able to serve more than 8,500 schoolchildren a year.
The growth of Operation School Bell has been due largely to the creation of the Delivering Dreams Bus mobile delivery center, a program unique to the Phoenix chapter.
“There’s a great need out there but oftentimes it’s hard for the population in need to get to the services,” said Runyon. “So we said, ‘Let’s find an answer to that and create a mobile center on wheels.’ Our first Delivering Dreams Bus came about through the generosity of the Diamondbacks Foundation Grand Slam Award.”
The Delivering Dreams Bus is a 40-foot distribution center that operates four to five days a week, serving 50 kids per school almost every day of the school year. Operation School Bell partners with 90 Title 1 schools, and school personnel determines which children are qualified for the program. Typically, 100 kids per school participate once in the fall, and again in the spring.
“I think one of the most shocking things is the number of kids that are excited to get their own toothbrush,” said Runyon.
“We’ve seen it all. Kids that have clothes that don’t fit or have holes in them. Kids with shoes that have cardboard or duct tape around the sole because the soles are gone. Kids that have shoes from two different pairs because that’s all that fit.”
Through the program, each child receives three polo shirts; two pairs of pants, shorts or skirts; a sweatshirt; underwear and shoes. The children are encouraged to pick the style and color of clothing they like. They also receive a hygiene kit that includes a full-size shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush.
In the 2019-2020 school year, two to three additional buses will be launched. “We’re so excited to take this idea even further because we’ve seen the success with it,” Runyon said. “We just received our second Grand Slam Award from the Diamondbacks Foundation and we’ll be launching a new Delivering Dreams Bus at the beginning of the spring baseball season in 2020. BHHS Legacy Foundation has also agreed to fund an additional bus that should be launching sometime this fall.”
Operation School Bell is successful in large part because of the volunteers and Assistance League members that are so dedicated to the programs and children they serve. By focusing on community needs to drive decisions around expansion, Assistance League of Phoenix hopes to grow across the Phoenix metropolitan area and help as many kids as possible.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of being able to help a child with something as basic as a pair of shoes or a toothbrush. It makes you really grateful for the things you have in your life that you take for granted,” Runyon said. “I think that one of the best things our program provides is an opportunity for these kids to see firsthand what it means to have a community around them that really cares about their well-being.”