By MeLinda Schnyder - Photography By Madison Ham
Lottie Miller was an elementary school principal in the Wichita public school district and saw first-hand the impact of Operation School Bell, the signature program of the Assistance League of Wichita. Through the program, students in need are invited to pick out new clothing that fits well and makes them comfortable at school. Sometimes this is the child’s first time to get new clothes and the process makes them feel valued and special, boosting confidence as they head into a new school year.
“I knew what Operation School Bell did for the children of Wichita and wanted to be a part of this organization,” said Miller, who joined Assistance League of Wichita when she retired from Wichita Public Schools in 2005 and now serves as president of the organization.
Operation School Bell is one of four programs supported by Assistance League of Wichita, whose mantra “Transforming Lives—Strengthening Community” is achieved with no paid staff and no funds from United Way. The local group is celebrating its 30th year as a chapter of the national Assistance League, which has more than 120 chapters and guilds nationwide involving 26,000 members. The non-profit organization of volunteers is dedicated to putting caring and commitment into action through community-based philanthropic programs that address the needs of the Wichita community as well as organizing one of the community’s favorite holiday events.
VIP: How did Assistance League of Wichita start?
LM: We started as a guild in 1984 and in 1987 we became a chapter of the national Assistance League organization. Several very dedicated women began the work that continues today. Charter members who are still members today are: Lola Mote, Bev Farha, Jan Chang, Helene Longhofer, Donna Wise, Karen Foley and Alice Laham.
VIP: Who runs the organization?
LM: We have a membership of 137 and we have 19 community volunteers. We are completely run by volunteers in three groups: voting members, nonvoting members and community volunteers. Voting and nonvoting are paid memberships. Voting members are expected to actively support our four programs, any fundraisers and our community services by contributing their time and expertise. Nonvoting members are not expected to contribute time and expertise, but are welcome to do so. Many nonvoting members are former voting members who are no longer able to work. We greatly appreciate their financial support. Our third group is community volunteers; they are not members but donate time regularly or for certain events. We work hard to match skills and interests with needs, so each person in the organization feels that they are having an impact on Assistance League of Wichita and the community.
VIP: How many people do you help each year?
LM: The best way to see that is to look at the four programs supported by Assistance League of Wichita.
Operation School Bell: Clothes are provided to USD 259 students based on the need identified by school social workers. In 2016, we created a partnership with JC Penney West allowing the families an opportunity to shop at JC Penney for school-appropriate clothing during scheduled shopping visits. A dollar allotment is given according to grade level. Each student also receives a hygiene kit and Payless Shoe voucher. During the 2016-17 school year, 2,680 students were served resulting in a total of 82,307 students served since we started Operation School Bell in 1985.
Scholarships: Vocational scholarships are awarded to USD 259 graduating seniors for programs at Wichita Area Technical College and Butler Community College. Scholarships have been awarded to 238 seniors since 1988, including 20 in 2017.
Sexual Assault Victim Support Program: Clothing, footwear and necessary items are provided through the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center to women, children and men who have been victims of sexual assault. Rather than leaving the hospital in paper scrubs after their clothing has been taken for investigation purposes, the victims are allowed to walk out with dignity in regular clothing. The program began in 1994 and served 462 individuals in 2016-17.
Bear Hugs: This program distributes cuddly bears and journals or sketchbooks to children that are victims of violence. It helps a child to have a bear to hug while being interviewed and examined by the nurse or staff at Via Christi-St. Joseph Campus or Wesley Medical Center. Also, statistics indicate it enables children to heal by sketching or journaling. This program provided 291 bears to the units in 2016-17 for a total of 3,618 bears since it was started in 1997.
VIP: How is the organization funded?
LM: We receive no United Way funds, have no paid staff and all funds we generate remain in Wichita. Fifty-seven percent of our funding comes from Thrift Shop sales, the remainder from donations and grants. The Assistance League Thrift Shop, 2431 E. Douglas Ave., opened in 1990 to generate funds by selling donated items. Our Thrift Shop is supported by the generous donations of new and/or gently used clothing, household items, linens, books, toys and shoes. Net sales increased last fiscal year from $211,525 to $236,638.
VIP: You’re also known for your Gingerbread Village, which has become an annual family tradition.
LM: Gingerbread Village is our community event that we hold a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving each year. The last several years we have held the event at Exploration Place and will partner with them again this year Nov. 11-12. Every year approximately 3,500 gingerbread houses are built by young and old.
VIP: How can readers support your organization?
LM: Readers can support us by making donations to our Thrift Shop and/or sending us financial donations to P.O. Box 8072, Wichita, KS 67208 or going online to www.alwichita.org.