San Mateo County – Peninsula program dresses disadvantaged students

An Assistance League volunteer and a boy show off the program’s clothing, which goes to disadvantaged youth.

Dressing 1,136 children in San Mateo County this school year to date, Operation School Bell® helps disadvantaged youth get ready for school.

The program provides free and new clothing to needy students in grades K-7 in a total of 21 schools from Daly City to East Palo Alto. The aim is to improve the health, self-esteem and school attendance of local youth. Run out of a chapter office on the second floor of 528 N. San Mateo Drive in San Mateo by an all-volunteer staff, it begins its work in August and mostly wraps up the clothing drive by January.

“It’s a worthwhile program that’s well organized,” said Joyce Quinn, Operation School Bell’s chair. “We contribute to community organizations that need help and it’s so rewarding.”

The volunteers arrange a room like a small retail shop where children select the items they want and try them on in the dressing rooms on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Volunteers are responsible for purchasing and stocking the shop, along with assisting the children in choosing clothing. Each child, selected by his or her school, receives two complete outfits, pants or skorts, tops, plus three pairs of socks and underwear, a $20 voucher for shoes, a jacket and a sweatshirt. The program also provides personal hygiene kits with toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and a comb.

Founded in 1970 as part of the Assistance League, Operation School Bell runs throughout the country. In San Mateo County, the majority of the financing comes from proceeds to the Turnstyle Thrift Shop, Assistance League’s resale shop at 60 N. B St. in San Mateo. Some schools in the area require students to wear uniforms to keep kids away from wearing gang affiliated clothing, so the program provides regular clothing and school uniform type attire. All clothing that goes to students is new.

“We buy new because a lot of the children need uniform clothing,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to reach all the children.”

Quinn joined Assistance League of San Mateo County after retiring from teaching eight years ago because she wanted to find something constructive to do. Although Operation School Bell is its biggest project, the chapter helps a variety of community organizations. It also runs a college scholarship program, makes baskets filled with new baby items for expectant teen mothers at local high schools and runs other programs of its own. Many members of Assistance League have past ties to education themselves, including herself, she said.

“I think I could speak for all the ladies who volunteer when I say we like being able to meet [the children’s] needs in this way,” Quinn said. “We are so happy to see the happiness in their faces. They’re so grateful and it’s so heartwarming for us. They’re getting something new and we’re getting the satisfaction of seeing them get something new.”

For now, the group will likely just stick with public schools, rather than expand to private schools.

“It would be too overwhelming and we wouldn’t be able to handle that,” Quinn said.

To serve more needy students, the program brings bins to schools where children aren’t able to make it to the San Mateo chapter office for fittings because of transportation difficulties. The bins contain sample sizes and remain on campus for a couple weeks. Additionally, some social workers will call in for children who slipped through the cracks and need school clothing.

During the 2012-13 school year, the San Mateo County program spent around $55,000 to provide new school clothing to 1,200 children in the community.

To help, you can donate clothing to Turnstyle. Turnstyle is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. You can also contribute to Operation School Bell directly by calling 344-7896 or emailing