COLUMBIA —A little girl pushes aside the curtain of her fitting room and struts out in a new pink dress.
She strikes a pose and smiles at the two women waiting for her. The women burst into praise and tug at the dress in a motherly way, making sure it fits just right.
Once the dress is proclaimed a success, one of the women hustles away to find a shirt in the little girl's favorite color: orange.
This girl and 30 of her schoolmates from Derby Ridge Elementary School were at the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri's headquarters, 1729 W. Broadway, for "dress day." This day is part of the league's Operation School Bell, a nationwide program dedicated to providing new clothing and personal hygiene products to children who need them.
When the program began in 1996, the league had a budget of just over $5,000. This year, the group expects to dress more than 1,200 children on a budget of $115,000.
Children in grades K-5th are brought from all Columbia area elementary schools to the headquarters on selected days in September, October and November. Each school uses their own criteria to select which children come, though all are chosen based on need.
Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Columbia, said students are chosen based on whether they qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. Referrals from counselors and teachers are also considered.
Jolene Schulz is the liaison between the schools and the league. She makes sure school administrators are familiar with the program, and even took Superintendent Chris Belcher for a tour of the facility in August. Jensen complimented the league's organization and said he has heard only positive feedback from the schools and families.
Schulz and three other women make up the committee that organizes Operation School Bell with Karen Ravenhill, Rose Ward and Rosemary Christensen. Though the program only runs in the fall, these women said they spend hundreds of hours throughout the year in preparation.
"Many hands make light work — that's our motto," said Christensen. Last year, 232 members tallied 1,985 volunteer hours.
"The friendships we build are phenomenal," Schulz said.
Volunteers act as personal shoppers, taking children by hand and filling a large basket as they select clothes. Other children watch a film as they wait their turns.
Each child can choose three shirts, two pants or skirts, six pairs of socks, six pairs of underwear, one warm top and one coat. In addition to the new clothes, the kids are given "Kaboodle Kits" — personal hygiene sets that include a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washcloth, comb and deodorant.
Ravenhill, in her second year as the head of Operation School Bell, said the league rented storage space to hold the inventory. They also expanded by rearranging a room to resemble a clothing store with dressing rooms, full-length mirrors and clothing on racks by size.
Everything is brand new, most clothes come from The Gap and The Children's Place. Clothes come from other sources as well — winter coats, for example, come from a manufacturer in New York.
Children bring permission slips that include his or her clothing size when they arrive. The league volunteers insist that the clothes fit properly, often conducting a wide search and suggesting a size that allows room for growth.
Rose Ward, inventory supervisor, spends all year filling the store with clothes. She knows the stock inside and out. On dress days, she serves as troubleshooter, matching the children with sizes and styles.
"These kids just beam," Ward said. "They're not with Mom, so this is all about the kids. They get to pick."
"We love that the children get to do the choosing," said Jan Beckett, vice president of communication for the league.
Jensen said the program definitely fills an important role in boosting a child's self-esteem. "Kids are very conscious of how they appear, and I think that impacts how they perform in school," he said.
A boy or girl who needs additional clothes can be accommodated. One boy whose family recently moved to Columbia from Africa, for example, was given more warm tops for Missouri's winters.
Sometimes requests are even made for special items. Ward remembered a fifth-grader who asked for a tie.
"He wore it to school the next day," Ward recalled. His teacher took a photo and sent it to Ward. When Ward saw the smile on the boy's face, she said she started to cry.
"This shirt and $1 tie made all the difference in the world."