For the past three months, a group of dedicated local women has been busy shopping at local stores for children’s clothing as kids prepare to head back to the classroom after a long summer break.
But these clothes are not for their own sons and daughters. Instead the boys and girls who are on the receiving end of the new outfits are part of the foster care system, and if it wasn’t for the work of the volunteers with the Assistance League of Southwest Washington many of them would be without something special to wear for the first day of school on Sept. 4.
“We know that oftentimes teenaged kids in foster care are in special need of clothing, and by working with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services we can provide necessary items,” said Jeanne Lightburn, Assistance League chapter president. “After all, what better way to kick off a new school year than with a new outfit?”
DSHS Children’s Administration Program Consultant Peggy Hays explained the impact that something as simple as a new item of clothing can have on a child in foster care.
“It is so important to children — especially teens — in promoting their self-esteem and helping them feel like all the other kids,” she said. “I have heard from more than one worker stories about how appreciative the children are. For many, this was the first time they’ve ever owned a new pair of jeans — with the tags still on.”
Last Thursday children ages 10 to 18, with guidance from Assistance League members, had the opportunity to pick their favorite items from among the new clothes — jeans, underwear, socks T-shirts, shoes, pajamas and backpacks — during a “Teen Day” event at the DSHS Vancouver office. A total of 220 children received clothing that day — an increase from 110 children last year — as part of the Assistance League’s “JUST because…” program.
Vancouver resident Christine Clements, Assistance League public relations chairwoman, described the day as “rewarding and fun.” Working with the children as they are picking out their new clothes is a touching experience.
“It puts a very special face to the work we do,” she said. “We get to see those smiles and get that connection.”
Clements and Washougal resident Kathy Holm have been part of the Assistance League for several months. Both initially decided to get involved with the group in an effort to be more active during their retirement years.
Clements, a retired special education and alternative education teacher, wanted a volunteer endeavor that would allow her to use her skills in working with youth.
“I felt I needed to give back to the community,” she said. “I saw all of the wonderful things Assistance League was doing and I could relate to so many of them. Everything they are involved in was really pulling at my heart strings in terms of my past experience with special needs and at-risk youth.”
In 2011 and 2012, Assistance League of Southwest Washington’s more than 60 members, including eight from the Camas-Washougal area, contributed more than 8,000 volunteer hours impacting 4,500 individuals and families in local communities. Their goal is to make positive impacts through programs geared specifically toward children and families.
“The opportunities to volunteer are very diverse, too,” Holms said.
Some of those signature endeavors include creating hundreds of “My Life Story Books” for children in foster care to record their personal history; providing new jackets, shoes, and other clothing as well as literacy and school supplies for children in need; and working with children in Innovative Services Northwest classrooms and providing participants with scholarships.
In addition, the local organization assembles Adult Survivor Kits (stocked with clothing and toiletries) that are given to victims of assault who are being treated at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital.
“We have been able to put together, for women, children and perhaps men, these kits so that they can leave the hospital with dignity, a fresh pair of clothes and perhaps a fresh start,” Clements said. “I think that is a real positive project that we have in our community.”
A variety of annual fundraisers help support the organizations programs including a Spring Garden Party in April and Sleigh Bell Benefit scheduled for Nov. 30 at the Vancouver Hilton. Nearly 80 percent of the money raised each year is returned to the community.
“We make sure we fill the ‘unmet’ needs of the community,” Clements said. “There are wonderful opportunities for people who want to give back to our community.”