Assistance League of Phoenix

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Assistance League of Phoenix Executive Director Aimee Runyon talks about Operation School Bell, a program helping children get adequate school clothing and other programs assisting families in the valley.

José Cárdenas: The Assistance League of Phoenix has helped thousands of children in Phoenix who don't have adequate school clothing dress for success for school. This year the Arizona Diamondbacks awarded $100,000 to the Assistance League of Phoenix to create a new project called Operation: School Bell Delivering Dreams. We'll talk about Operation: School Bell in a moment. First here's what the project is all about.

Aimee Runyon: Assistance League of Phoenix has been helping children and families for just over 50 years.

Brianna Mitchell: I saw them one morning walking to school without shoes on. No uniforms. No shoes, barefoot. I took them all to Operation: School Bell. They have shoes. They love their shoes. They love their clothes. It's so great to see or to know that Operation: School Bell is doing it for the kids and only the kids.

Nancy Clark: When the child stands in front of the mirror after putting on new top, new bottoms, new shoes, they almost don't recognize themselves. But what you see is a giant smile.

José Cárdenas: Joining me to talk about the operation is Aimee Runyon, executive director for the Assistance League of Phoenix. Thank you for joining me this evening. What we saw in the video is what the Assistance League has been doing for the last 27 years in terms of Operation: School Bus -- School Bell, rather. Let's talk about that and the new wrinkle this year.

Aimee Runyon: Yes. Actually, Assistance League of Phoenix has been in the Valley helping children and families for over 50 years as an all-volunteer organization, but Operation: School Bell, our signature program, has been going on for over 27 years where we have provided new school clothing for children in need throughout the greater Phoenix area, all through the help of volunteers.

José Cárdenas: What makes it so unique, it's like an individualized fitting. The kids get clothes especially for them.

Aimee Runyon: It's like having a personal shopper. So the kids come to our center, and they are taken one by one with a volunteer, they go through the center picking out clothes. Everywhere we can give children a choice we do. Whether or not that's choosing between pants or shorts or one of each or navy bottoms or khaki bottoms, it's really interesting that even small choices like that are so significant to children that have never had a choice to make.

José Cárdenas: Every child there's a kind of a set list of things they get. Let's talk about that.

Aimee Runyon: There is. Every child gets a full wardrobe. That consists of three polo tops, two bottoms, either can be two pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, one of each, or a skort for the girls. They get six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks. A belt, a sweatshirt, a brand new pair of athletic shoes, a hygiene kit that has a full size shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap. And a backpack. I'll tell you one of the biggest comments we get other than they are excited about having a brand new pair of shoes or their own pair of shoes is they are excited that they get to have their own toothbrush.

José Cárdenas: How many kids do you service?

Aimee Runyon: We serve over 4,000 children. This year we're actually going to be able to to serve over 6,000 children, and that is in large part due to this grant from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

José Cárdenas: This is the new wrinkle; this is the Delivering Dreams part we talked about in the introduction. Tell us about that.

Aimee Runyon: So for 27 years schools have been coming to our center. What we found is there are so many schools in south Phoenix, on the west side of town, it just takes so long to get to us, it takes the kids out of class for too long. Now we have devised a plan to take our program to the schools. So we have a 40-foot city bus, and we retrofitted that into a mobile dressing center. So inside you'll find a waiting area for dressing rooms, racks of clothing, a shoe fitting area. It's really spectacular. Great thing about this bus is the outside looks like a huge Diamondbacks ad. So when the kids are selected to come out and receive new clothing, they come out of class, it now takes away that stigmatism of being poor, being low-income and having to go out to the Assistance League bus. Instead we get to go out to the Diamondbacks bus. What child doesn't like to go out and see all things Diamondbacks? So they also get a Diamondbacks backpack. It makes it really exciting for these kids. That's what we try to do is create that environment. At our center we have a partnership with the Phoenix Suns, so back when we had our center built we received the large grant award from the Phoenix Suns so when the kids come into our center on 5th Street and Dunlap they see the Phoenix Suns Reading and Learning Center. It's exciting for them. They are not walking into a cold bench. They are getting to play on I-Pads, games, crafts while they wait for their personal dressing.

José Cárdenas: You mentioned reading and learning. One of the things they get is a book.

Aimee Runyon: They do, and they get to choose the book. Anywhere we can give a child a choice we do. We collect thousands of books. We have over 40,000 books that come through our center. Donated, most of them donated. Every book a volunteer goes through and puts a name plate in the book so the child can write their name on their book. It is our hope we can create home libraries for these children.

José Cárdenas: The volunteers make sure the books are age and grade appropriate.

Aimee Runyon: They do. A lot of our volunteers are former educators, so they go through all the books making sure that everything we give out is appropriate, it's in good condition and they separate it based on different grade levels.

José Cárdenas: Your volunteers are principally from Assistance League. But other groups can get involved. How can they do that?

Aimee Runyon: They can. We have different corporate groups that help out. We have PayPal, the Diamondbacks come out, Intel has come out. We have different corporate groups that get their employees involved and send out their employees to volunteer for either a day or several different days. We also have people that call up and want to volunteer. So we'll have people that come out, bring their family, their friends, their church groups. We really have so many volunteer activities. Our organization is run primarily by volunteers.

José Cárdenas: With one exception.

Aimee Runyon: Two: Myself and the bus driver.

José Cárdenas: That's something new, right? You're the first executive director.

Aimee Runyon: Yes.

José Cárdenas: not just here but in the country.

Aimee Runyon: Nationally. For over 50 years Assistance League of Phoenix has operated all with volunteers. It is amazing. In that time they did two capital campaigns and owned two buildings outright, all volunteers, which is really amazing. We own and operate a thrift shop on 7th street between Glendale and Northern. We get a third of our revenue from that source. As you said, nationally, we're the first chapter in all the U.S., out of 122 chapters, for an organization -- Assistance League has been around for over 100 years -- to have an executive director. My position was paid for through a three-year grant. Again, anywhere that we can make sure that every penny raised in Phoenix stays in Phoenix and goes to help children and families.

José Cárdenas: Among those children you help, that includes charter schools, right?

Aimee Runyon: Yes.

José Cárdenas: You provide uniforms for kids who go to schools that require uniforms?

Aimee Runyon: We do.

José Cárdenas: How does that work? I imagine it changes from school to school, the kind of uniform.

Aimee Runyon: It does. Pretty much most of the schools are really changing to uniforms. We serve 15 school districts and about 77 schools, all uniform schools throughout the greater Phoenix area. So we have a wide variety of colored tops, navy blue and khaki bottoms. Generally any of the colors we have --

José Cárdenas: That takes care of it?

Aimee Runyon: That covers it. The schools will pick out a couple of the different colors they want the students to be able to choose from.

José Cárdenas: Sounds like a great program. You have been able to expand it through the generosity of the Diamondbacks and I assume more to come in the future.

Aimee Runyon: Yes.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us on Horizonte to talk about it.

Aimee Runyon: Thank you so much.

Aimee Runyon:Executive Director, Assistance League of Phoenix;

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