In the next seven months, nearly 4,000 local disadvantaged children will be saved by the bell - Operation School Bell.
The signature philanthropic program of the Assistance League of Tucson has provided clothing, shoes, backpacks, hygiene kits and school supplies to more than 38,000 children in kindergarten through fifth grade since its inception in 1994.
"I had no idea there were as many needy children as I have seen or just how needy they really were," said Judy Andrasic, chairwoman of Operation School Bell.
"When you have children come in wearing pajamas under their clothes because they are cold, it knocks you for a loop. You just don't think in those terms."
The children are recommended by principals, school nurses and teachers from more than 30 schools in the Altar Valley, Amphitheater, Flowing Wells, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified school districts.
Participating schools are designated "Title I," with a high percentage of low-income students who receive free and reduced-price lunches.
The program also serves the Arizona's Children Association and children with Amity Circle Tree Ranch. Andrasic said the mission is to keep children in the classroom, build self-esteem and improve performance by providing appropriate, comfortable, well-fitting clothing.
For many of the children, "shopping" for brand-new clothing - including three tops, two bottoms, socks, a pair of athletic shoes, a jacket and underwear - and other items at the Assistance League of Tucson's Philanthropic Programs Center is a new experience.
"Many of the kids just don't understand that they are able to pick out their own clothes … so many say, 'Well, can I take them home?' It is overwhelming for them.
"One little boy was crying so hard because he had never experienced anything like this. He was scared to death … he had never had new clothes," Andrasic said.
While choosing new clothing is a great adventure for the children, it is equally rewarding for the 400 local women and for teenage girls known as Assisteens who volunteer with the program. They donate more than 45,000 hours every year through Operation School Bell and other programs including Assault Survivor Kits and Starting Over Supplies, which provide basic household supplies and personal grooming items to individuals and families in crisis.
The organization funds those projects - including the $280,000 annual budget necessary to facilitate Operation School Bell - through fundraisers, grants, private donations and revenue from The Thrift Shop of the Assistance League of Tucson.
Vice President Nina Kersels, who belonged to chapters throughout the country and overseas before arriving in the Old Pueblo and joining the local chapter nine years ago, said the Tucson members are amazing.
"We all work really well together and there are no complaints about salary because everyone makes the same amount: We are all volunteers," she said. "The members really believe in our programs and work toward a common goal. The more kids we can dress, the happier we are."
Get involved / B8
Shop for Assistance League of Tucson
You can shop and support projects of the Assistance League of Tucson at the same time by visiting the Assistance League of Tucson Thrift Shop, 1307 N. Alvernon Way.
Shop hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Donations such as clothing, furniture, household items, sports equipment, antiques, collectibles, linens, jewelry, books and toys are accepted when the shop is open and from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday.
To make a donation, go to www.assistanceleaguetucson.org or call 326-1585.
For more information about joining the Assistance League, send an e-mail to email@example.com or call 326-8452.
Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at firstname.lastname@example.org