During a difficult year, Assistance League expands help for Salem students

Jeanette George loads a hygiene kit into a drawstring bag at the Assistance League of Salem-Keizer on Monday, April 26, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Jeanette George grew up in a family of five girls in Missouri. To help her parents’ money stretch, she usually wore hand-me-down clothes from her cousins.

Now retired, George spends a few days a week picking out new clothes for elementary school students so they can come to school in outfits that fit them. She also bags toothbrushes and toothpaste to hand out through local schools.

“I know how important that can be to a child to have clothes like other kids, to have shoes that fit you and make sure that you can fit in with other people,” she said.

It’s part of Operation School Bell, a project of the Assistance League of Salem-Keizer which has grown over the past year as the group has received more donations and looked for additional ways to help families struggling with the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Racks of children’s clothing at the Assistance League of Salem-Keizer on Monday, April 26, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

So far this school year, they’ve served more than 2,400 students in the Salem-Keizer School District by providing clothes, grocery gift cards and hygiene items. Volunteers work with school counselors and outreach workers to identify students who could use extra help.

In April, the Assistance League donated $100 grocery gift cards to Hallman and Auburn elementary schools for school employees to give to families in need, president-elect Toni Phipps said. In February, volunteers also distributed fruit and vegetable snacks and books to students at the Cornerstone Learning Center, which was set up last fall to help students living in the Cornerstone Apartments in northeast Salem attend school virtually.

George began volunteering for the League in 2005 after retiring from a benefits coordinator position at the district. She was looking for ways to help kids and found Operation School Bell, serving as chair multiple times in the years since.

Currently, George leads the team that assembles and distributes hygiene kits to students, offering toothbrushes and toothpaste for the youngest kids, and adding deodorant and shampoo for older students.

That effort began in 2018, working with the school district’s program serving homeless students, George said. This school year, her team has distributed more than 1,300 kits.

The process starts with bulk purchases at Dollar Tree. Then, George and other volunteers bag items, assembly-line style, in the basement room of the Assistance League’s building on Saginaw Street.

Jeanette George loads a hygiene kit into a drawstring bag at the Assistance League of Salem-Keizer on Monday, April 26, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Julie Conn-Johnson, who runs the district’s program serving homeless students, said the volunteers’ work helps students and their families maintain personal dignity.

“The students are able to attend school in the same state of personal hygiene as the other students. The parents are able to attend work, interviews, school meetings … with a feeling of confidence rather than personal discomfort that can occur if a person is feeling a need to distance from other people due to hygiene considerations,” she said in an email.

Despite undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer in her eye over the past year, George has kept up her volunteer work, spending two or three days a week at the Assistance League’s building.

“I like filling the orders. It’s fun to pick out the clothes and hope the kids will like them,” George said. Volunteers choose outfits for younger kids, while middle and high school students more often get gift cards to do their own shopping.

“As you can imagine, middle and high school didn’t like our choices of clothes that much,” George said.

Though volunteers haven’t been able to interact with students directly as much over the past year, George said seeing the impact of donations on students has been a highlight of her work.

She recalled an event about two years ago at Waldo Middle School where a young boy from one family approached her and asked if he could have a toothbrush. She said, “Sure.”

George said the boy responded, “Oh good, I won’t have to use my brother’s any more.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.