By Emily Williams
On the heels of being named Homewood’s Retail Business of the Year, the Assistance League of Birmingham is welcoming the recognition and looking forward to the possibility of gaining some new volunteers.
The Assistance League’s retail outlets, PrimeTime Treasures and Encore, fund the organization’s three non-profit programs.
PrimeTime Treasures takes over the front portion of the store, selling goods handmade by Alabama senior citizens. The store gives seniors an easy way to sell their crafts and make an income.
“They set the price and when we sell something they get that money,” said Barbara Kelley, league past president and current member. “We add a little bit for lights and heat, but basically they get what they ask for.”
The shop opened its doors in 1977, the year after the Birmingham chapter of the league was established. PrimeTime used to take up the entire retail space in the league’s storefront, but in 2010, during Kelley’s presidency, the league voted to introduce the upscale thrift store Encore.
“This has been a good steady income for us,” Kelley said. “We have some people who come in and shop on a regular basis with us.”
The space houses a variety of clothing for women and children, toys, small appliances and furniture, among other things. The only thing the store doesn’t carry is men’s clothing.
Everything sold in the shop is donated by community members.
“When we first started, we cleaned our closets out and thought, ‘What’s going to happen now?’” Kelley said. “It hasn’t mattered at all because the community – people we have never even laid eyes on – decided they would rather bring (their clothes) here, because they know it’s going to be used.”
All of the money raised in Encore goes toward the league’s service endeavors: Operation School Bell, which provides clothes and hygiene products for elementary school children in need, and Operation Literacy, an ESL tutoring program at Shades Cahaba.
Encore’s “book nook” is it’s own fundraiser.
“These are gently used books that we sell and the money goes towards buying new books for Operation School Bell,” said league President Connie Williams. “A lot of us who read, or our husbands who read, buy them. I brought three back today that I bought here. Now I’ve donated them back.”
Operation School Bell
Each chapter of the League has the freedom to create and choose service programs, but each one must incorporate Operation School Bell.
Each year, 1,500 to 2,000 elementary school children are bused from school to the league store, where they are fitted with new clothing. The fall semester is devoted to schools that require uniforms, and other schools take over the spring.
The league kicked off this semester Jan. 19 with a visit from Gwinn Elementary.
“We have been coming to Operation School Bell for more than 15 years and it’s a great program,” said counselor Wendy Gault. “They provide clothing for children who are in need. We have a lot of families who can’t afford clothes that fit.
“It’s a fun trip and the ladies make it fun,” Gault added. “This helps their families so much. Not only do they provide clothing, they provide hygiene packets, socks and underwear. The kids look so forward to coming on this trip.”
The Monday before a visit, league volunteers pack a bag for each of the participating students that contains a sweatshirt, two shirts, two pairs of pants, six pairs of socks and six pairs of underwear.
Kelley said many of the league members who prefer to help out on fitting days for students are retired educators. In fact, Williams is a former superintendent of the Hoover City Schools.
On fitting days, children file into the basement of the league’s building and take turns entering the 11 fitting rooms to try on their clothing. While they wait, kids draw thank you cards for the league, and each picks out a book to take home with them.
“Seeing a little child come out of that dressing room, walk in front of that mirror and see the grin on their face – it makes all of the work worth it,” Kelley said. “They just light up when they see themselves.”
In addition to books and clothes, each child gets a hygiene kit complete with shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush, along with deodorant if they are older.
“We have one or two people who shop,” Kelley said. “There are 120 chapters of Assistance League and everybody has Operation School Bell, so most of the shopping is done in bulk and a lot of chapters use the same vendors. We get most of our orders for about $60.”
The league has large storage closets with shelves upon shelves of shirts, pants, underwear and any other item a child could possibly need, all sorted by size. The only requirement for children in need to apply to the program is to go through their school counselor and have a form completed by a parent or guardian.
The league can only accommodate a certain number of schools, but it does respond to emergency situations. Kelley said the league served a group of children who relocated to Birmingham after Katrina.
Williams recently packed a few bags for a family affected by the Jan. 14 fire in Vestavia Hills.
“That fire happened on Thursday and the family barely got out with their two school-age kids,” Williams said. “So I came down and just packed a bag for them.” The next day, a friend of Williams’ pointed out that one of the children was being interviewed on the news wearing one of the shirts provided by the league.
“Most of my personal memories of the league are School Bell memories, because I was an educator and that was the hook that drew me into Assistance League,” Williams said.
Another favorite memory of hers is of a one-on-one interaction with a student.
“It seems such a trivial thing – but I was working downstairs with a little boy and I was showing him a hygiene kit,” Williams said. “I showed him that in this bag we have shampoo and soap and a toothbrush and he looked up at me and said, ‘My own toothbrush? I’ve never had my own toothbrush.’”
The boy told Williams that he had been sharing a toothbrush with his four brothers, so she gave him four more toothbrushes and told him to give one to each of his siblings.
“We take for granted that we have those things,” Williams said. “It’s probably better than not brushing at all, but I can’t imagine five boys sharing one toothbrush.”
Williams and Kelley agreed that the recognition from the Homewood Chamber will help keep them from being the “best kept secret in town.”
The league has about 90 members, many of whom do not actively volunteer.
“We want people to know about the work we do,” Williams said. “This city should be able to support a chapter of 150 or 200. When we go to national conference and talk to other chapters, we are a small chapter as Assistance Leagues go. There are some of them who have 400 people.”
Many of the members of the Birmingham chapter are retirees, but there is no age requirement to join, just a $75 annual membership fee and desire to make a difference for young children.
“We can get overwhelmed with the need in this city,” Williams said. “There are so many kids who need Operation School Bell that we don’t serve. We don’t serve them because of money limitations and limitations on our time.”
The Assistance League hosts two large fundraisers each year. In honor of its 40th anniversary, the league’s fall fundraiser, the Little Black Dress luncheon and fashion show, will incorporate a celebration of the chapter and will recognize past presidents.
In the meantime, the league is preparing for its largest fundraiser of the year, “Sunset and Song,” March 17 at the Kress Building. The event will feature a performance by Lonnie Parsons, Kristi Tingle Higginbothom, Jan Hunter and Carl Dean.
For anybody who is interested in joining, the league hosts a monthly meeting every third Wednesday of the month.
“We start our meetings with coffee at 9:30 a.m. and we start our meeting at 10 a.m. then we have lunch afterwards,” Williams said. “We do lots of eating around here.”
For more information about the Assistance League, visit www.assistanceleaguebhm.org.