Assistance League overhauls Operation School Bell and launches matching gift campaign

By Sara Cullin

Who hasn’t needed a little help in their lifetime? Maybe it was just school supplies for college or linens for a new apartment. Perhaps it was more serious, like needing a place to stay after leaving an abusive relationship. Many of us are fortunate to have family that helps in these situations.

However, many of us do not have that parent, aunt or close friend who already knows our needs. That’s where Assistance League of Greater Cincinnati comes in.  

Everything has changed, except their needs

In a room filled with boxes, I sit and wait with Assistance League member volunteers. We get to talking about why they choose to spend their time this way, most of them having retired.

Assistance League Secretary Cyndie Willson reads a story to students at Bond Hill Academy in February 2020. Member volunteers provided 400 new and gently used books for classrooms.

Cyndie Willson, a resident of Milford, was a teacher for 37 years before she joined Assistance League.

“The kids came, and it was just wonderful,” she said of her first Operation School Bell experience 11 years ago. “I thought, this is where I want to be. Seeing their smiling faces.”

Operation School Bell has been the biggest initiative of Assistance League locally, having supplied more than 32,000 Cincinnati-area children with school uniforms since 1998. Elementary students relished this field trip of sorts. They would arrive by school bus at Assistance League’s Bond Hill facility, where they would “shop” for their clothes.

University of Cincinnati students and volunteers Kyle Mardis and Bennett Weir arrange boxes full of school uniforms for Operation School Bell 2020.

The room filled with boxes – hundreds of them – is decorated with pictures of smiling children and colorful, handmade thank-you notes. The ladies echo some of the children’s exclamations that have stuck with them through the years. 

“Are these clothes all mine?”

“My mom is going to be so happy!”

 “Now I have my own toothbrush!”

Each box contains some component of a school uniform: collared shirts, pants, fleece jackets, belts, socks and underwear. In a “normal” year, these items would be neatly hung or folded, and organized by color and size. Each student would be paired with a personal shopper, who would guide them from station to station to assemble their uniform. These shoppers would take measurements, help the children try things on, and even hem their pants on the spot. At the end of the trip, each student would board the school bus with their very own bag containing two sets of fresh clothes that fit them perfectly.

 Assistance League member volunteer Amy Seifried finds uniform pants for a Bond Hill Academy student during Operation School Bell in 2019.

But here in 2020, where nothing seems to go perfectly, there are no students visiting Assistance League. Their needs have not changed. In fact, the 5,330 children who benefited from Operation School Bell in the fall of 2019 have grown and still need uniforms for school. So, the volunteers adjusted their operation to ensure their needs are met. They started by asking each of the 42 participating schools to assess their needs.

Unpacking the needs of school children in Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods

TJ Smith, the Community Learning Center Institute resource coordinator at Mt. Airy School, collaborates with organizations like Assistance League to positively impact students. She and other resource coordinators took the boxes of clothing and other supplies to their schools for distribution.

“We expect the needs to be great as many parents have been out of work,” Smith said. “Basic needs are a key component for student success, which is why I asked for help with hygiene items.”

 Assistance League President Audrey Stehle and Secretary Cyndie Willson greet Matt Mouser from Silverton Elementary School. He was the first person to pick up school uniforms for Operation School Bell 2020.

This year, Assistance League began supplying books, tooth brushes and other hygiene items based on feedback from Smith and others. The “Red Star Task Force” identified clothes, hunger, literacy, supplies and health as basic needs for each student returning to school. Some needs, such as food, were already being met by other organizations.

“We never duplicate efforts and raise all our funds locally,” said AL Chapter President Audrey Stehle. “As a 100-percent volunteer organization, the money we raise goes directly to the people who need it.”

Going beyond the school bell to fulfill unmet needs

Stehle, who resides in Mt. Lookout, first supported the Indianapolis chapter of Assistance League over 20 years ago. When she and her husband moved to Cincinnati, she joined the local chapter and has seen the number of volunteers grow along with needs of adults and children. The organization is a well-oiled machine; volunteers logged 11,900 hours of service during the past year.

 Azariah and his classmates from Bond Hill Academy visited Assistance League in 2019 to receive school uniforms.

That’s the equivalent of more than five full-time employees. What keeps them so busy? Through Operation School Bell and five other programs, volunteers served 8,339 local people in need in the past year.

Here are some examples:

  • 1,278 foster children were given diapers, socks, and other needed supplies when placed in a kinship foster care situation.
  • Domestic Violence Kits, containing hygiene supplies and clothing, were provided to 464 women and children.
  • 474 women in 47 area hospitals were delivered Assault Survivor Kits®.
  • 383 families were given new household items, such as linens and cleaning supplies, through the New Beginnings Program, which helps women and their children who’ve left an abusive situation.
  • 410 disadvantaged adults were provided notebooks, ink pens and other supplies to help them start college.

What motivates Assistance League volunteers to do all this work? Stehle said it is the mission on the wall: “transforming lives through community programs.” It is a sisterhood of caring, compassionate people who have taken the mission to heart.

 Haylee, from Bond Hill Academy, at Assistance League in 2019.

The challenge, and the blessing

Like all of us, COVID-19 has thrown Assistance League member volunteers for a loop. On monthly Zoom calls, about 35 members have been discussing local needs and how to fill a hole in the budget created by the elimination of Assistance League’s two primary fundraisers: the Aspire Cincinnati Award Luncheon and Books & Brunch.

The organization received almost $300,000 in revenue in 2019, with roughly half that coming from their fundraising events and the remainder from grants. About 85 percent of revenue is returned to the community through the programs developed and implemented by the local members. Assistance League of Greater Cincinnati has earned the GuideStar Gold Seal of Transparency for eight consecutive years and maintains Charity Accreditation from the Cincinnati Better Business Bureau.

Recently, an anonymous donor pledged to match all contributions, dollar for dollar – up to $50,000 – until the end of the year.

“With the support of donors, we have been able to expand our programs over the past 20 years,” Stehle said. “Every donation is important to our success, but this challenge gift is extraordinary.”

Asking others to rise to the challenge

Every individual contribution made through the end of 2020 will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $50,000 total. Donations may also be eligible for the charitable provisions of the CARES Act, passed by Congress and in effect for 2020, only.

Make a matching contribution.

Assistance League also welcomes community members to contribute their time as a volunteer.

“All the program services we provide are to recipients who are dealing with chaos and upheaval and are in the bullseye of even greater need,” Stehle said. “We are preparing to continue our services to children in need and women in crisis. Now, more than ever, we need help from the community.”

Thanks to Assistance League for providing this content.

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