By Morgan Owen
Assistance League of Pasadena has provided 2,500 low-income students with clothes and school supplies.
More than 3,500 children have new huggable bears to comfort them when times are tough, and 140 seniors have been able to showcase and sell their crafts for supplemental income. That is the work Assistance League of Pasadena accomplished during 2022.
Assistance League of Pasadena is one of 120 Assistance Leagues nationwide that work to change the lives of children and adults through community programs. Assistance League of Pasadena’s president, Ursula Hyman, says even though they have a high impact on the community, it still seems like they are the best-kept secret in Pasadena.
The group has been hard at work in Pasadena since 1936. Today, the volunteer-run nonprofit provides philanthropic services to the community through programs like Operation School Bell, Bear Hugs, assault survivor kits and school supplies for success.
“We’ve been clothing children in Pasadena since 1941,” Hyman says. “(Operation School Bell) is our largest program, the program we spend the most money on.”
Before the pandemic, Operation School Bell looked very different from how it does in 2023. Back then, Pasadena Unified School District would work with Assistance League of Pasadena to bus low-income students to their thrift store for a fashion field trip. The student would then be sent home with a nearly complete wardrobe and a voucher to purchase a pair of shoes.
Post-pandemic, Hyman says schools are reluctant to let the kids miss class time. Instead, the schools work with the Assistance League by having parents fill out forms with their children’s sizes and preferences. Their volunteers then use those forms to put together a backpack full of the clothing items the children need.
While she misses the personal interaction with the kids, Hyman says it is probably better that they no longer take a field trip to receive their supplies. That way, they aren’t singled out for bullying because of their circumstances at home.
“We hear from the community about families weeping (from relief) when they receive the clothing. … I dealt with a family last year who called us directly because they were starting school the next day,” Hyman says as she recounted the story.
“I know you do this through the schools, but I have no clothes to put my children in. If they don’t (get clothes), they won’t go to school,” the mother told Hyman, who told the mother to come to Assistance League of Pasadena’s headquarters straight away.
“I met with her, and she was just crying as we tried on some clothes for her kids. … It was heartwarming to see. It really makes a difference for some families, especially this year with inflation.”
Hyman says that even though there are fewer children in Pasadena schools now than in 2019, the number of families who need assistance has increased. Last year, people requested services from ALP 41% more times than in previous years. In 2023, Hyman says she expects that number to grow another 10% to 15%.
Because of the increased demand, Hyman says ALP is looking at ways to expand its services. As part of the Operation School Bell program, the league also puts together school supply kits for all grade levels and has considered expanding its clothing services to middle schools.
Every Assistance League throughout the nation has an Operation School Bell program. But Hyman highlights what Assistance League of Pasadena has done that’s unique to this community. In particular, the Bear Hugs program has seen a 91% increase since 2021.
Through the Bear Hugs program, Assistance League of Pasadena distributes stuffed bears to neglected, abused or traumatized children. The organization ensures that first responders, foster facilities, hospitals and even dentist offices are all supplied with teddy bears they can give to children in need.
“Last year, we distributed over 3,500 bears, and I expect this year it’ll be closer to 5,000,” Hyman says. “While it’s tragic that so many bears are needed, we’re really glad we’re able to get them into the hands of children who need them.”
The stuffed bears can be instrumental in helping children endure stressful situations, Hyman says.
One mother told a volunteer that the bear helped her son get through a traumatic doctor’s appointment to fix a broken arm. Hyman also recalls feedback from dentists, who say the stuffed animals have helped children who haven’t had their teeth cleaned in years get through a cavity filling or root canal.
Out of Bear Hugs grew Assistance League of Pasadena’s assault survivor kit program. Many people who go to the hospital or police station to provide a rape kit have their clothes confiscated as evidence. Assistance League of Pasadena’s assault survivor kits come with a change of clothes, underwear and a bag stocked with hygiene products, so those who seek justice don’t have to leave in a pair of scrubs.
Assistance League of Pasadena’s collaboration with nonprofits and nearby Assistance Leagues make it possible to provide its services. One such organization is the Assistance League of Flintridge, which helps Assistance League of Pasadena by providing backpacks and hygiene kits for their Operation School Bell program.
“I think the biggest lesson we learned is that we can reach far more people through affiliations,” Hyman says. “I started meeting with all the Assistance Leagues — the one in Flintridge, the one in Arcadia and the one in Glendale. No one had ever come together before. … (We began to) explore where we could be of more help to one another.”
Hyman has worked hard to move Assistance League of Pasadena into the 21st century, something COVID-19 helped with. Because she wasn’t bound by the mentality of “this is how we’ve always done it,” she says she has been successful in transforming the organization to work more efficiently in a post-COVID-19 world.
The group’s funding comes from three main sources: the Treasure Fair Thrift Shop, its annual appeal, and grants. From 2021 through 2022, Assistance League members and community individuals contributed $77,000 through their annual appeal.
In addition, Assistance League of Pasadena accepted $38,000 in funding from the Albertson Company Foundation, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, the Pasadena Host Lions Club Memorial Trust, the Green Foundation and the Jameson Foundation. They also received a $50,000 one-time grant to develop a new educational program.
Most of their funds come from their Treasure Fair Thrift Shop, which produced net sales of $140,000 from 2021 to 2022. The thrift shop is staffed entirely by volunteers who stock and work the shop 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Hyman says she feels the store is not only a great source of revenue but that their affordable prices also allow struggling families in Pasadena to find quality household goods and clothes.
Assistance League Pasadena also provides a second way consumers can help fund their philanthropy, the Craft Fair Gift Shop. This offshoot of Assistance League of Pasadena is a way for seniors to sell handmade crafts for supplemental income. Available at the shop are knit baby clothes, blankets, sweaters and bootees, floral wreaths, hand-painted pottery and jewelry.
All items are handcrafted by men and women over the age of 50. While Assistance League of Pasadena keeps 25% of the sales price, the craft fair was able to return over $51,000 to 140 exhibitors. Beyond the money, Hyman says that the craft fair helps give seniors in the community a sense of purpose.
From infants to seniors, Assistance League of Pasadena is ready and waiting to help its community thrive. While things had to change with the pandemic, they have only become more efficient and impactful than ever before. Anyone can donate, and anyone can volunteer.
Hyman wants her members and the community to know that “it’s OK to ask for help. And it is OK to turn around and say to your friends, ‘I need a donation.’ … Write a short note to a good friend of yours. What’s the worst that can happen? They say no. What’s the best that can happen? They send a check.”