Begun in 1967, the all-volunteer, nonprofit member organization has served Contra Costa County for more than 50 years. Over the last year, the need for the Diablo Valley’s programs has increased while their primary funding source, the Assistance League Thrift Shop in Lafayette, has been mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Begun in Walnut Creek, Assistance League Diablo Valley has served Contra Costa County since 1967. The all-volunteer, nonprofit member organization is dedicated to “Transforming Lives — Strengthening Communities” through 16 hands-on programs in three focus areas: Operation School Bell, Scholarships and Community Needs.
Over the last year, the need for their programs has increased while their primary funding source, the Assistance League Thrift Shop in Lafayette, has been mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Grants, foundation money and personal donations have helped, but the organization is still looking to the community for added support.
Last year, more than 400 adult members, along with Assisteens Auxiliary, contributed 54,000 hours to community service and served 9,000 people returning $606,000 to meet the needs of people in Contra Costa County. The Assisteens Auxiliary consists of 60 teens from grades seven through 12 interested in volunteering while developing leadership and organizational skills. They have been part of the chapter since 1977 and have been volunteering during the pandemic.
“The basic mission of Assistance League Diablo Valley is to identify needs in the Contra Costa County community that aren’t being met,” said Arlita Smith, ALDV vice president of marketing and communication. “We’re a member of the national organization with chapters across the United States, 12 in Northern California. The origins of Assistance League go back to 1907, when the national organization started in Los Angeles.”
Though several in-school programs under Operation School Bell — including Read, Reach and Discover, Listen, Kids on the Block and Elementary Arts Education — have been curtailed due to the pandemic response, two others are needed more than ever. Common Threads is a new program in partnership with the Homeless Outreach Program for Education (HOPE) in which volunteers shop for homeless high school students in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, purchasing clothing at Old Navy based on lists and sizes supplied by the students.
A second ongoing program is Sunshine Boxes, in which ALDV delivers 400 boxes a month of healthy shelf-stable food such as fruit, cereal, macaroni and cheese and beef jerky to Pittsburg’s Heights Elementary School. The Pittsburg Unified School District then distributes them twice a month to school children selected from various elementary schools in the district who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals.
“Due to the pandemic, we’ve had a big increase in requests for the ‘Common Thread’ program for homeless students; it’s tripled in requests. Also we’d ordered almost $180,000 worth of school uniforms because 85% of the schools we clothe are public uniform schools, so the boxes are waiting for schools to reopen to distribute the uniforms,” she said. “Along with the Sunshine Boxes, the schools requested that we also collect hygiene items because many families cannot afford soap and shampoo, so we’ve been adding those to the distribution of the Sunshine Boxes.”
A second focus area for ALDV is awarding scholarships, some to high school seniors entering a four-year school, others to junior college students transferring to a four-year college or to returning students getting back into education. Other scholarships go to teachers as grants for new areas of study for their students. Last year the chapter awarded $134,000, less than normal due to the thrift shop being closed. In other years, scholarships have totaled $200,000.
The chapter’s Community Needs focus area normally runs eight programs, but the one most needed during the pandemic is Telecare, which offers daily volunteer-initiated, reassurance phone calls to people who are homebound. Monday through Friday mornings, beginning at 9 a.m., a trained volunteer calls each Telecare client, the calls combining a health and welfare check with a friendly chat and exchange of ideas.
“It’s a friendly daily chat but also a reassurance call to check to see how they’re doing, and it creates a nice family atmosphere for people who are living alone,” Smith said. “We have more clients due to COVID-19, and there are probably others out there who would benefit from our calls if they heard about us.”
There are several ways the community can help. When the Thrift Shop reopens, customers can shop there or donate items. Common Threads would benefit from a grant or cash donation. The chapter welcomes new members and volunteers. Vehicles can be donated, and the GoFundMe account for the Sunshine Boxes would welcome additional funds.
With more funding, the Sunshine Box program could be expanded to more than one school. Similarly with more funding, the Common Thread program presently working with the Pittsburg Unified School District could add homeless students in the West Contra Costa and Mount Diablo school districts to the program. Smith stressed that most of the ALDV’s programs are geared toward children, providing them with public school uniforms or clothing for high school, honing their skills and helping students feel good about attending school.
“We’re helping children and their families feel more a part of the community — helping children succeed in life and not fall behind,” she said.
The benefits of being a member go both ways. Smith, a member since 1985, values her contributions and describes chapter members as having been her community through what she terms “life’s ages and stages.”
“I benefited from all the advice and support as I raised my children, needed to take care of aging parents and dealt with the passing of family,” she said. “Membership is much more than attending meetings and raising money.”