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Operation School Bell helps kids

Posted: Wednesday, Sep 2nd, 2009

Photo courtesy of Barbie Butz Brothers Bryan and Luis Barrios of Paso Robles shop for school clothes at Operation School Bell in Atascadero. Kelly Palos, a volunteer for the program, assists the boys with their clothes.

School-clothes shopping is not an anticipated family tradition for folks without the money to do it, which is where Operation School Bell, part of the San Luis Obispo County Assistance League, comes in.

The organization gives elementary school children brand new outfits so they start the academic year fitting in with the rest of their classmates. The children are referred to them either through a social services agency or the school they attend.

“In our area, it’s the main program that we have,” said Maureen Marquis, the chair for Operation School Bell North.

Marquis said Assistance League member Barbie Butz was instrumental in bringing a North County School Bell to Atascadero more than 10 years ago. Butz said she simply saw a need.

“Through working with Coats for Kids, I knew there was a desperate need in the North County,” she said. “I had been working with low-income families, so I knew there was a place for this. It’s one of the most remarkable programs we have in this county.”

Butz explained that there are three basic human needs, for shelter, food and clothing, and students had no place to go for new clothes before School Bell’s arrival.

Operation School Bell has two sites in the county; one is in San Luis Obispo, and the other site is at the Santa Rosa Academic Academy in room 16 in Atascadero.

Volunteers with the Assistance League go on buying trips to Las Vegas where they’re able to pick up new clothes at low prices. When they bring the clothes back, it’s displayed like a clothes store where children can pick out the clothes they prefer.

“They’re set up like little shopping areas for the kids, which is wonderful,” Marquis said. “The idea of the whole program is to give the kids self-esteem. Starting school with new clothes with new shoes to go to school with.”

What they get is a backpack, a grade-level story book, anything from Clifford to Harry Potter, a toothbrush and toothpaste, two pairs of pants, two tops, six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, one pair of shoes, a sweatshirt and a jacket.

Marquis said the North County group serves between 24 and 32 children each day and have helped 238 children so far this year. Last year, North and South County served more than 1,100 children total, and that’s the goal this year.

“We have a lot of new kindergartners this year, so we’re seeing a lot of new families coming to us,” she said. “

Funding comes from grants, fundraisers and donations. In addition to School Bell, a new program was piloted this year, Sue’s Stars. Volunteers in that group allocated $100 per student for children in seventh and eighth grades. The children, their parents and volunteers traveled to Old Navy and purchased school clothes from the store that gave them a discount.

“The volunteers said the children and parents were ecstatic, and the kids and parents were hugging them,” Marquis said. “It was a great success, but we wish we could clothe more kids. There’s money set aside for next year, but we’re not sure what will happen after that.”

There will be a fundraising fashion show, Saturday, Sept. 19 at the SLO Country Club. Tickets are $50 each and can be purchased by calling Marquis at 466-3503.

To donate to School Bell, send checks to Assistance League of SLO County; P.O. Box 14904; SLO, CA 93406.

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