There was chaos in the gymnasium of a Salt Lake City elementary school one brisk fall day last October. Or so it seemed. In reality it was simply the clatter of feet on wood and the excited chatter of children as volunteers from the Assistance League of Salt Lake City put “Operation School Bell” into action.

Assisting in the project was Manny Martinez ex’73, chair of the Alumni Association’s Community Service Committee. Martinez had brought along some volunteers, including a few U of U football players, which heightened the sense of anticipation in the air.

After 20-some years, Operation School Bell has become an annual ritual at many of the public elementary schools in Salt Lake. Under the tutelage of the Assistance League—and with revenue raised through its thrift shop sales and fund-raising efforts—the project aims to distribute winter clothing to disadvantaged children throughout the valley. Teachers and counselors pinpoint children in need, and parents provide their child’s clothing sizes. Outfits are assembled according to each child’s measurements, and volunteers help the youngsters try on their clothes to make sure they fit.

On this particular “School Bell” day, children of varying shapes, sizes, and shades waited anxiously in line as a volunteer claimed each one, then led her or him to a row of numbered plastic bags, each containing a set of new clothes, including socks, underwear, pants, T-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, and heavy winter jacket.

Some of the children were animated, others subdued. Some didn’t talk, others couldn’t stop. Some seemed too small even for kindergarten, others were the size of middle schoolers. Many were ill dressed and clearly in need of a wardrobe upgrade. But each, with the help of a volunteer, received a personalized fitting.

Says Assistance League volunteer Lynn Rosenthal, head of Operation School Bell, which is carried out in all 50 states, “This past year, we went to about 50 schools in the Salt Lake Valley and provided some 4,300 children with new clothes, more than any other city in the country.”

This is the first time that Alumni Association volunteers have participated
in the project, assisting with visits to 14 schools this year. The idea to get
involved came from Dorothy Ware ex’57, wife of Reuel Ware BS’54, a
member of the Community Service Committee, which is ever on the lookout
for new projects and programs in order to expand the Association’s (and,
by extension, the University’s) outreach into the community.

Martinez oversees the committee’s efforts. Under his direction, the committee has increased its activities to include not only collaboration on Operation School Bell, but also assistance with the Special Olympics, a three-day competition for physically challenged youths held at the U in the fall; inauguration of a spring clean-up program, in which volunteers spend a few Saturdays helping the aged and infirm with yard work; and establishment of a community service internship in collaboration with the Bennion Community Service Center. Most recently, the committee participated in Sub for Santa, raising funds to aid a needy family during the holiday season. The committee also continues its involvement with the Utah Food Bank annual drive.

Martinez describes himself as a “hands-on” type of guy. He majored in organizational communication at the U, where his commitment to community service began. As president of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, he supervised the house’s service projects. “It was a ‘good feeling’ kind of thing,” he says. “I came to the University on a baseball scholarship and the G.I. bill and wanted to give back to the community in some way. It was satisfying to get involved with projects where you could accomplish something concrete and see results.” Martinez finds Operation School Bell a particularly attractive volunteer opportunity. “I got into the project easily because I’ve dealt a lot with kids. I was a ‘den mother’ in Cub Scouts. Plus,” he adds, “kids don’t always get the attention they need from adults. Once kids warm up to you, you get enjoyment from what you’re doing for them from them.”

It helps that Martinez speaks fluent Spanish, which he was able to put to good use with the Hispanic children participating in Operation School Bell. “I love talking to the kids,” he enthuses. “You can just see their eyes light up.”

Participation of U athletes in the program also added a glow to youngsters’ eyes. Martinez worked with Manny Hendrix BS’94, director of athletic relations at the U, to involve athletes, who are required to volunteer each school year, as he thought kids would relate well to them. They did. Children stared saucer-eyed as brawny football players joked with them and helped them try on their new outfits.

Assistance League President Joanne Petersen MEd’82, who taught in the Salt Lake School District for 37 years, sums up participants’ feelings about the project: “It is so heartwarming to see the smiles on children’s faces when they get their new clothes. Sometimes they want to wear their new jackets the rest of the day for fear they’ll disappear before they can pick them up after school.” Of the many projects the Assistance League is involved in, says Petersen, Operation School Bell “is closest to my heart.”

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.