Changing Lives With Every Ring | OEC News

Stepping into new shoes: How Operation School Bell empowers Norman’s youth

By JoMarie Ramsey

In the heartland of Norman, Oklahoma, where crimson and cream pride runs deep, another color scheme is often overlooked—the multi-colored whirl of new clothing gifted to children by Operation School Bell. This powerful program, run by the Assistance League of Norman, is a testament to the difference a united community can make. Operation School Bell shows a side of Norman that echoes a robust and compassionate heart for its young residents.

A Closer Look at Operation School Bell

Operation School Bell is an integral program of Assistance League chapters nationwide. This program focuses on clothing children who lack clothing and grooming necessities. Officers of Operation School Bell work with school counselors to identify students to participate.

A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

During her first shift with Operation School Bell, Becky Gillum, now the program’s grant officer, was one of seven volunteers catering to 42 children’s needs. Their day starts early with volunteers preparing for the influx of children. The children, who come in sets of 14, are each assigned a volunteer to assist them.

In a one-on-one setting, the volunteers help the children shop for essential clothing items like pants, shirts, coats and undergarments, Gillum said.

In addition to new clothing, Operation School Bell accepts ‘gently worn’ clothing donations. This additional resource allows the program to offer children even more clothing options. Thus, while the funding from Operation Round Up enables the purchase of new clothes, the donations from the community serve as an essential supplement, ensuring children have access to a broader range of clothing options.

“The gently-used section helps us give the kids double what we’re able to give them through the new section, ” Gillum said.

However, it is not all business. The children also get to pick out a new book, a grooming kit and even a stuffed animal to take home.

“This process is not just about clothing children,” said Gillum. “It’s about granting them the unique opportunity to feel special and valued.”

For these children, spending 30 to 45 minutes with a volunteer in an environment encouraging them to choose brand-new clothing just for them can be life-changing, Gillum said.

“Many of the kids are used to the reality of wearing hand-me-downs or sharing clothes with their siblings,” Gillum said. “But this program allows them to have something entirely their own.”

The volunteers invest their time and energy into understanding the child’s needs and preferences. This interaction ensures that the clothes fit correctly and adds an extra touch of care and attention that these children might seldom experience, Gillum said.

A Day of Discovery and Joy

“Every shift, every interaction, and every moment spent with these children is a unique and unforgettable experience for us,” Gillum said.

During their shift, volunteers work with children from different age groups, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. This personal attention allows the volunteers to meet each child’s specific needs, Gillum said.

The day ends with the children having a memorable shopping experience — where they are the main focus.

Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes— Literally

Often, the volunteers encounter children wearing clothes and shoes that are far from their size, usually because they belong to an older sibling. This reality emphasizes the gravity of the situation and further highlights the essential role that Operation School Bell plays.

In addition to clothes, Operation School Bell also ensures that the children receive a brand-new pair of shoes. To make this possible, a partnership with JCPenney grants each child a $50 voucher. This arrangement makes shoe shopping feasible and flexible, allowing the children to find the perfect fit.

Parents’ Perspectives: Gratitude and Surprised Delight

The program is also received positively by parents, who often express gratitude for the assistance provided. The choices some families have to make, such as buying necessary school supplies or new clothes, illustrate the program’s necessity.

“When parents accompany their high schoolers for evening sessions, they often express surprise at our shopping space’s scope,” Gillum said. “The expectation of a minimal selection and hurried process is often replaced with astonishment at the shopping-like experience provided.”

Piecing Together Funding for School Bell

Operation School Bell, a dedicated non-profit, relies on a combination of grants, fundraisers and private donations to continue its operations. After recently taking over the grant writing department, Gillum manages several consistent contributors, such as OEC.

How the OEC Foundation Fuels this Mission

Staff at Operation School Bell secure funding for all the new clothing through various grants, like those offered by the OEC Foundation. Operation Round Up program has a significant impact on such initiatives.

“OEC is one of our most consistent donors,” Gillum said. “A grant of $10,000 from ORU helps provide new shoes to approximately 1,600 students. We are so thankful for that contribution.”

OEC members voluntarily ’round up’ their monthly electric bills. This collective generosity amasses approximately $18,000 monthly, aiding those in need across the co-op’s seven-county service area.

Over the past two decades, ORU awarded over $5 million in grants, making a meaningful difference in the lives of many.

All Hands on Deck: The Power of Volunteers

A unique facet of Operation School Bell is that it runs primarily on volunteer power. Almost all positions, from the president to officers and chairs, are filled by unpaid volunteers. The organization invites community members, businesses and groups to participate in their operation, providing valuable opportunities to experience their work firsthand. Find out more at assistanceleague.org/norman/volunteer/.

The work of Operation School Bell paints a compelling picture of community spirit, selflessness and steadfast commitment to enhancing the lives of children, aligning closely with the core principles held by OEC and its members. Each role plays a crucial part in this journey of community unity and support.

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