Needy children, abused wives among beneficiaries

By Melissa Hirschl

Kyrene Corridor residents Sue Graham and Betty Van Laeke consider themselves fortunate. As active members of the 14-year-old East Valley Assistance League, they get to see firsthand the positive effect their volunteering has on the community.

Through the league’s Operation Bell program, volunteers provide new clothing, including jackets and shoes, to needy elementary school children.

The organization’s main purpose: To provide services in individual communities through philanthropic projects.

Both Laeke and Graham agree that Assistance League is ideal for women who are at a transition point in their lives.

“These are a great group of women who come from all walks of life,” says Graham. “They are teachers, nurses, housewives and professional people; you’re likely to meet one or two people that you really enjoy being around.

“Plus, we’re all a great support system for each other.”

By donating much of their spare time to charitable events throughout the year, Assistance League volunteers are able to allot about $75 to each of the 30 to 35 grateful children they bring with them.

Each child is helped to select clothing during shopping jaunts to Mervyn’s. Operation School Bell is the signature philanthropic project for 112 chapters across the United States with annual budgets of more than $6.5 million.

“The schools select the children,” says Graham, “and we take the children, one-on-one, to Mervyn’s about twice a month during the school year.

“They open early and are very cooperative with us. The children are so excited, and it’s very gratifying see them when they pick out their new clothes. One child had her flip-flops break while she was at the store, and she was so happy that we bought her new tennis shoes.”

Graham says another memorable moment also came during a shopping spree.

A child looked up at her and asked who paid for the clothes: “Mervyn’s or you old ladies?”

There are other enriching community activities that Assistance League volunteers immerse themselves in as well, such as the A.S.K. program, short for Adult Survival Kits.

Every month throughout the year the organization provides “comfort’ kits,” containing toothpaste, soap, deodorant and soap for women who have been in domestic violence incidences. “In  2002,” says Van Laeke, “we purchased, packaged and delivered 322 women’s kits (which also included clothing) and 155 children’s kits.

“Frequently these women need help with everything from finding a shelter to finding clothing, so in addition to the kits, we provide a new outfit for them and their children.”  

The volunteers provide this much needed assistance to women who are hospitalized or receiving services from the Center Against Family Violence in Mesa or CARE 7, an organization that provides counseling services when there is domestic violence issues, fire or other emergencies.  Nurses put the items in storage for whoever may come in needing help. In addition the group provides baby bottles, diapers, snacks and water.

Currently there about 130 active members in the East Valley Assistance League, which is made up of a colorful mix of retired and semi-retired women; working both full and part time. According to Graham, the average volunteer puts in between 20 and 30 hours a month. This includes working 8 – 10 hours in the Assistance League’s Thrift Shop (located at the SW corner of Warner and Arizona Avenues), organizing senior birthday parties, tutoring through their Adopt a School program at Hartford School in Chandler, and putting on a lavish fashion show once a year.  “This show,” says Graham, “is also a silent auction, and a live auction with a luncheon. All of us get together and do a lot of work putting together baskets and gathering donations; our last event was a spring affair at the Hilton in Scottsdale. We all get to get dressed up and feel very elegant which is a lot of fun. You never know what will be auctioned; a few years ago someone auctioned a puppy!”

Another creative way the Assistance League raises money is through their “Loose Change” program which is exactly what it sounds like. Members donate their loose change at meetings which in turn goes to a $500 scholarship for a culinary student at the East Valley Institute of Technology. “That’s our way of saying thanks for letting us use their facility,” explains Graham. “The institute picks the student that they feel can benefit the most from the scholarship.”

If you have some extra time on your hands and would like to make a difference with this very worthwhile organization, contact  Sue Graham at (480) 839-0607. Meetings are the second Monday of the month at the East Valley Institute of Technology located at 1601 W. Main (between Dobson and Alma School). Meetings are at 10am and there is an orientation in the fall.

The website is http://assistanceleague.org/ps.osb.cfm