South Charlotte

Operation School Bell has clothed 1,700 kids

A few times a week, big yellow school buses pull up to Operation School Bell off Clanton Road and unload dozens of children from Title I schools.

The children get new jackets, uniforms, shoes, toiletries and other items.

Thanks to the Operation School Bell program by the Assistance League of Charlotte, 1,700 students will have adequate clothes to wear to school this year.

Susan Sayrs of Ballantyne, a former librarian, has been volunteering with the Assistance League for eight years. As the current president, she makes sure all the league's programs help as many people as possible.

Operation School Bell has been providing new clothes for needy children in 21 Mecklenburg County elementary schools since 1995, serving nearly 24,000 children. This year, the organization will serve the largest number of kids to date.

"Westerly Hills Elementary just went to uniforms," said Sayrs. "We clothed them first. We understand the reason to go to uniforms, but that hits parents hard."

When students arrive at the Assistance League Center, each child gets a large paper bag to write his or her name on and decorate. Each student then is accompanied by a volunteer to the storeroom, where the student chooses a light or heavy-weight jacket in a color of their choice. Trying the jacket on is the volunteers' favorite part, said Sayrs.

"When they look in the mirror, it's a guaranteed smile," she said.

After getting jackets, the children try on pants for size and are given two navy pants and two white T-shirts. They then choose a six-pack of socks and underwear, receive a toiletry kit and pick out an age-appropriate book.

After the students' bags are filled, each smiling student goes back to the main waiting area, where their feet are measured for a new pair of shoes to be delivered the following week to their school, by Payless at Carolina Place.

It costs the Assistance League $60 to fully clothe each child, as they have National Assistance League buying power. The majority of the local league's funding comes from the thrift store the league runs, which is attached to the Assistance League Center.

While the children are being clothed, shoppers on the other side of the wall buy furniture, clothes, books and accessories that have been donated by the community. With a volunteer-only staff, every penny goes back into Assistance League programs. Other funding comes from grants and donations from organizations and individuals.

According to Sayrs, Operation School Bell was started when a teacher in California noticed students were not coming to school on certain days because they were sharing clothes with siblings.

"We don't want kids to not come because their shoes don't fit or they don't have a jacket," Sayrs said. "We've been doing this a lot of years, and the need just doesn't go away."

Recent studies have shown the need actually is increasing, with well more than 4,000 children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools classified as homeless, a significant increase from years past.

According to Dolores Jones of Ballantyne, president-elect of the league, Operation School Bell not only is a great way of giving back but a way to make a lot of friends and have fun together. Many of the volunteers are retired teachers or nurses, but every woman brings her personal expertise to the league, which is run like a business, said Jones.

"We are good stewards of our money, and all our money stays in the Charlotte Mecklenburg community, which is important," Jones said.