Since last August, Suzy Thorne of Ahwatukee has helped buy new school clothes for almost 900 children in need, coordinating a massive effort that involves eight school districts and dozens of volunteers. She did the same thing the year before.
As a member of Assistance League of East Valley, Thorne is a chairman for the group’s main philanthropic project, Operation School Bell. The project provides new clothing, shoes and hygiene kits to elementary school students in the Kyrene, Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert school districts.
Dixie Shirley of Ahwatukee, former principal at Kyrene de las Lomas and Kyrene de la Sierra, is in charge of working with school districts who require uniforms. Another 6,000 children in 19 area schools received uniforms last year.
“The kids are so excited to try on new clothes, and to get things that match,” said Thorne, one of at least 10 Ahwatukee residents who are part of the group. “They are accustomed to getting hand-me-downs. One child said he’d never had his own toothbrush before.
“The children are chosen by the schools, and all are on the free lunch program. It makes you feel good to see how happy the kids are, and how appreciative their parents are.”
One afternoon Thorne navigated through the aisles of Target with a social worker from Children’s First Academy, a school for homeless children, piling four carts full of jeans, T-shirts, socks and underwear. They cleaned out the sale racks.
At most “dressing” events, 90 children come with their parents to a Target store at a specified time, meeting with volunteers who help them select $90 worth of clothing. Thorne remembers one exhausted young mother who came rushing in just before closing time, having taken the bus with her baby and two older children.
“One volunteer held her baby while others pitched in to pick out clothes,” said Thorne. “There’s a lot of need out there. It takes a lot of work on the part of volunteers to raise the money for this.”
ALEV raises much of its funds by operating a thrift store at 1950 N. Arizona Ave. in Chandler, at the southwest corner of Warner Road and Arizona Avenue. The store is run entirely by volunteers and is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.
“The shop has great things, beautiful boutique clothing, housewares, books, linens, toys, you name it,” said Katie Seavers of Ahwatukee, who is secretary for the group. “I like the interaction with the customers who come in, and I like the fact that we’re helping children. I wore a purple sweater today that I bought at the shop.”
ALEV also provided 3,500 assault survivor kits last year to police and fire departments containing clothing and personal care items for victims of assault, accidents or other crisis situations. They’ve started providing teddy bears for child victims to the Chandler Police Department this year.
The group also holds monthly birthday parties at an adult day care center, provides supplemental materials to teachers and awards scholarships. ALEV is part of a national nonprofit Assistance League that puts caring and commitment into action through community-based philanthropic programs.
Another fundraiser for the organization is an annual fashion show and raffle, this year on April 12 at The Arizona Biltmore. Sheila Stimmel of Ahwatukee is on the fashion show committee, and she also edits the monthly ALEV newsletter. She said she loves working at the shop.
“I always work on a Tuesday morning, since that’s when all the new merchandise is put out and there’s always a crowd outside waiting for us to open,” said Stimmel. “You get to see the same people, who become like friends.
“Some women make a beeline for the boutique. They come to the register with their arms full of clothes. They say it’s like the Nieman Marcus of thrift shops.”
Stimmel said the group is always looking for new members. For more information on membership, on the thrift shop or fashion show, go to www.assistanceleagueeastvalley.org.
• Sarah Auffret is a freelance writer and member of the Assistance League of East Valley.