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`OPERATION SCHOOL BELL' WARMS NEEDY KIDS

Enduring winter without a coat is unimaginable for most people. But for some 2,000 Salt Lake children, a coat is a luxury many do without.

"Kids come to school without shoes or underclothing, sometimes," said Dorothy Watkiss, a volunteer with the Assistance League of Salt Lake.The Assistance League provides coats and clothing for needy children through a project called "Operation School Bell." Money for the clothing is earned through a thrift shop, 2060 E. 3300 South, and the volunteers say even a small purchase can buy a lot for a child.

With only $43 per child, Whitehead must shop year-round for the best bargains. That money usually stretches far enough for a parka, jeans, sweat shirt, underwear and socks.

"We send a letter to social workers or psychologists in the elementaries," said Chairwoman Marilyn Whitehead. The school coordinates with parents to identify what each child needs.

The women meet to distribute the clothing on Wednesday mornings after school begins - just in time for the first snowfall. Each bag is tagged for a specific child and delivered to the schools.

After trying on the clothes the bags go to the principal's office until school is out.

"These children are so excited to get their clothing," said volunteer Sheila Jones. "A lot of them have never had anything new."

One principal told Watkiss that one little boy loved his new coat and jeans so much he slept in them.

The group gets thank you notes from children, principals, teachers and parents.

"It has been a disheartening struggle for this single parent to provide for her children," wrote one mother whose three children received coats and clothing. "Your generosity and compassion have been a real bright spot for us so close to the holidays."

Murray School District officials recently awarded the group with a certificate of appreciation.

The group concentrates on elementary schoolchildren for budget reasons, but if a junior high or high school student requests help, the group does their best to accommodate them.

One high school psychologist noticed a student in need and asked league volunteers to help him. They did.

"I appreciate you for all the clothes you gave me because I really needed them, and the clothes that I took fit me perfect," he wrote. "I hope that you didn't go through too much trouble getting them for me."

Children don't have to be on welfare to qualify, a need just has to be identified by school officials and parents, Whitehead said.

"If giving a child clothing makes the difference between having rent money or utility money, then it's well worth it," Whitehead said. "We want the kids to be warm, to be in style and to increase (their) self esteem. If they feel good about themselves, learning is easier. And hopefully, it helps parents and takes a little pressure off them."

After the initial beginning of school rush, the group responds on a crisis basis to individual requests throughout the year.