Fourth- and fifth-grade students from Ross Elementary School are seated at long plastic tables with board games, Legos and other amusements as they wait for their name to be called.
About four students at a time are called. They walk with a volunteer, one-on-one, into a warehouse room, where brand new jackets, T-shirts, jeans, hats, underwear and more are stocked, like in a department store. Each student gets to pick out, try on, and take home almost $200 worth of new clothes, new shoes, and a bag of toiletries — a toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo. They don’t have to pay the $200.
This is Operation School Bell®, a nonprofit program put on by local volunteers as part of Assistance League of Boise.
“It is such a tremendous economic help to families,” said Jeff Harry, a social worker at Ross Elementary School. “We kind of told the kids when they got on the bus, not very often in your life do strangers give you something of such economic value with really no strings attached, just out of giving and kindness. … It makes a significant difference to be able to get those basic clothing items, especially going into the winter.”
Harry has been a part of bringing Kuna students to Operation School Bell for about 10 years. Over the past few years, about 425 Kuna elementary school students have been bused to the Boise philanthropic center to pick out their clothes and other essentials. The program provides these items to a percentage of elementary school students receiving free and reduced-cost lunches.
In Kuna, about 800 elementary school students receive free and reduced-cost lunches. That’s about a third of the total number of elementary school students; about 32% of the entire school district enrollment receives free and reduced-cost lunches.
Harry has seen the number of students he takes to Operation School Bell increase over his 10 years with the school district. After the recession, as the economy improved, Assistance League of Boise was able to help more students, he said. Higher enrollment in the school district has also contributed to how many Kuna students participate.
“They’re pretty familiar with the change and growth in Kuna,” Harry said about Assistance League of Boise.
Harry said students are suggested by teachers to participate in Operation School Bell. Harry and the teachers do not know who receives free and reduced-cost lunches, so selecting students is a bit of guess-work. But Harry has faith in the teachers’ suggestions
“There’s a lot of hidden poverty in Kuna,” Harry said. “There’s people that rent and don’t have much money, both parents are working and something happens and somebody’s out of a job … they’re in a world of hurt then.”
HOW DOES OPERATION SCHOOL BELL HELP?
New clothes, shoes and toiletries are purchased from partnering stores. Fred Meyer is the primary partner for Assistance League of Boise.
Assistance League of Boise raises money to purchase the items, mainly through its volunteer-run Thrift Shop on Glenwood Street in Garden City, various donations and grants. Last year these efforts raised almost $695,000, according to the website. About 80% of funds raised goes back into the community through programs. The rest goes to “keeping the lights on” and some operational supplies.
Through Operation School Bell, students from Kuna and other Ada County schools receive the following items:
Two pairs of jeans or sweatpants
Six pairs of underwear
Six pairs of socks
Personal care kit containing toiletries
Pair of shoes
Book of their choice
Gloves and handmade hats, when available.
Last year Operation School Bell provided these items to 3,656 students. This year it is on track to help 3,700, including 400 Kuna students.
“We’re such a good-kept secret, which is awful,” Oliver said. “We’re trying to do more promotion all the time, but most of the time we’ve been pretty self-centered here, right here, taking care of kids. We’re asking people to donate to what we consider cause. The need is definitely there.”
Assistance League of Boise has six other programs available to Ada County students and families:
Baby Bundles: a partnership with local hospitals to provide a backpack full of items for infants.
History in the Bown House: a tour and demonstrations of Idaho living in the 1800s.
Cinderella’s Closet: prom dresses and tuxedos for students to rent.
Empowering Youth: giving youth who have aged out of the foster care system household items for independent living.
Operation School Supplies: boxes of assorted school supplies for teachers and students.
Project Hearing: giving hearing aids to qualifying adults.
This is different from the national organization, which focuses on Operation School Bell and Operation School Supplies.
Assistance League of Boise, with a branch in Canyon County, is the only chapter of the organization in Idaho. Boise’s chapter was started almost 40 years ago, and Canyon County just had its first Operation School Bell this May.
“If you ever want to make a difference, this is it,” Oliver said. “We have committees that are just bullish about doing it right. I love their passion.”