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IN RETIREMENT, STEPHANIE SMITH ALREADY GIVING BACK

 Former Principal Stephanie Smith with other Assistance League volunteers and the GM of Walmart Before she retired as principal of Belmont Elementary School in the spring, Stephanie Smith vowed that her work serving the community – especially its children – would continue.

This weekend, Ms. Smith began that journey of continued investment through a most worthy cause.

For the past 50 years, the Assistance League of Pueblo’s Operation School Bell has outfitted hundreds of District 60 youngsters with brand-new school clothes, along with under apparel and hygiene items. 

This half-century of generosity represents an investment of millions of dollars.

In previous years, the League has outfitted more than 1,100 boys and girls. In 2020, the global pandemic required a paring down of the number, but last week, more than 810 children selected by school counselors passed through four designated check-out aisles in the North Side Walmart Supercenter with at least $100 worth of shirts, pants, skirts, hoodies and other clothing essentials.

“We think this helps children in many ways,” said Susan Bernal, co-chair of Operation School Bell. “Obviously the social aspect: feeling good about themselves, as well as improved performance in the classroom. We think it’s important for kids to have good clothing and have a jacket to keep them warm when it gets cold.”

To begin her “new career” of volunteer public service, former principal Ms. Smith donned a League apron and helped facilitate the check-in, shopping and check-out experience for the little ones.

All with her trademark bubbly personality and unending smile.

“I called the League up and said, ‘I’ll help,’” Ms. Smith said. “As a former principal, the program was always such a benefit to our students. So now that I have time, I wanted to be part of helping. 

“And it’s a bonus for me, because I’ve been able to see kids, which I’ve missed in my retirement.”

For the past four years, the League has partnered with the North Side Walmart Supercenter and Manager Jesse Dauenhauer. This year, the Supercenter provided not only the services of staff, and sale prices, but a $2,500 community grant.

“Ever since we’ve partnered with the Assistance League, it’s been a blessing,” Mr. Dauenhauer said. “They are such nice ladies to do what they do: raise money all year for these kids. And for us to be able to help them is just wonderful. 

“After four years, we have it down pat. We have a nice little system where they come through the Garden Center to get pre-checked. And after that, they come out onto the floor and our associates help them shop and maximize that $100 to get as much as possible. And for $100, the kids do get a lot.”

Branndi, one of the associates who served as a “shopping partner,” said the role is rewarding.

“We make sure they get everything that’s on their list and everything else we can as they reach their total,” Branndi said. “The kids are so happy and excited to have nice coats to wear for the winter and nice pants. So it’s an absolutely nice part of the job, to be able to help kids like this.”

The impact on children who benefit from Operation School Bell is immeasurable. Studies show that students, especially those at risk, are less apt to show up for school because of old or unclean clothing.

Reporting for school in fresh new clothes also can positively impact a student’s performance in the classroom.

Through the many years of Operation School Bell, the League’s generosity is rarely forgotten by those who benefit from it.

Said Mrs. Bernal, “Every now and then we run into somebody that participated and they’ll stop by and say, ‘You helped me when I was a child. Here’s a donation.’ There’s a lot of people who have come back to us.”

To fund this expansive venture, the Assistance League of Pueblo hosts an annual Holiday Fashion Preview and Gourmet Luncheon at the Pueblo Convention Center. Sales from the League’s Bargain Box thrift store also bolster Operation School Bell.

Although this year’s Operation School Bell has come to a close, the Bargain Box thrift store at 331 East Fourth Street offers children’s school clothing, as well as adult clothing, at reasonable prices throughout the year.

This year’s Holiday Fashion Show is slated for December 4. Tickets are priced at $65 and are available at the Bargain Box or from any Assistance League of Pueblo member.

For more information visit www.assistanceleaguepueblo.org/ or call 544-1528.