“I love working with all of my fellow volunteers,” says Assistance League of Bellingham volunteer Sarah Spinks. “I’ve never had a sister, but now I have many—not to mention a purpose in life.”
Spinks words underscore just one of the many reasons folks find joy in giving to this organization that gives so much back to our community members in need.
Assistance League of Bellingham is a national organization, chartered in 1982. “We’re a community of caring volunteers—both for each other and for the people we are able to help,” says longtime member Christy Dahms.
Some of the special volunteers skills our local Assistance League currently seek include: someone to help publish a monthly newsletter for members, a book-oriented person who can evaluate donated vintage books, any volunteer with computer or finance skills, someone with a truck who can help pick up donated goods and, of course, volunteers who want to contribute to Whatcom County and make new friends.
For Diane Michel, the friendships she’s formed in ALB have become a core group in her life. “I’ve been a member for 15 years, and my fellow members have become good friends. I appreciate the variety of walks of life the women have come from. We share a lot of life stories!”
Operation School Bell®
ALB is open to anyone who wants to be a contributing member. Besides the main fundraising effort of running its Thrift & Gift store on Meridian, the group run Operation School Bell®, which provides new school clothes annually for 2,300 students in need.
The student is given a budget and allowed to shop for colors and styles of appropriate clothing that appeal to them, in partnership with Target. “Seeing the kids’ faces—and their parents’ faces—makes me so teary,” says Dahms. “We connect with the community in a one-on-one way, not just through paperwork.”
Mindy Toney, who volunteers on the Operation School Bell® committee and was a teacher for more than 25 years, also deeply appreciates that connection to students and their families as they shop. She joined ALB a little over two years ago after moving to Bellingham.
“Where do I begin?” Toney responds, when asked about the benefits of being a member of ALB. “There are 140 really smart, caring people who enjoy each other’s company. And as a newcomer to Bellingham, it was a really great way to meet people, help others, and have fun.”
Hospital Patient Support
ALB’s Hospital Patient Support program provides more than 500 local emergency room patients each year with clothing that’s needed when a patient’s clothes are damaged, held for evidence or simply inadequate for a given situation.
Kathy Valek is chairperson of the Hospital Patient Support committee, and joined ALB five years ago after moving to Bellingham from Chicago. She and other committee members take sweat pants and sweat shirts to the hospital approximately twice a month, delivering about 600 sets of clothes per year.
“We spend the proceeds from the thrift shop locally in the community,” Valek says. “And it’s such a bunch of really nice people.”
Enrichment Scholarship Program
An Enrichment Scholarship Program for Whatcom students extends scholarships to students to participate in enriching summer camps they might otherwise not be able to afford. Students submit an application, which includes an essay evaluated by volunteers. Past scholarships have enabled students to go to dance, music, science, math, and debate camps.
“I like the feeling that, as a volunteer, I can be a meaningful cog in the wheel of our organization,” says Karen Griffith-Hedberg, who works with the Enrichment Scholarship Program. “You can see that you’re directly accomplishing something, and I enjoy working side-by-side with wonderful friends.”
The Enrichment Scholarship Program is merit-based and aims to provide at least one scholarship to every middle school and high school in Whatcom County, as well as the online school Washington Connections.
Care Center Support
Another project, the Care Center Support program, serves residents in care centers in Bellingham and around Whatcom County. Individual residents can wish for a specific gift, and the ALB works to fulfill those requests and help those who may be without other support networks know that they are remembered. ALB volunteers also send birthday cards and deliver special treats to raise the spirits of care center residents.
According to Dahms, the organization is a fitting place for members to use their talents to help others. “People get to use skills from their professional life or experience to help others,” she says. “We have members with all kinds of abilities that they contribute: art, accounting, jewelry repair, event planning…you name it.” There is a place for you, too!
Jackie Laughlin, another longtime ALB member, learned of the organization while chatting with someone at the Senior Center. She decided the connection and valuable work was something she’d like to try.
“It’s a fantastic group,” she says. Laughlin particularly appreciates the ethical approach for running the thrift store. Volunteers who work on sorting and cleaning donations in the back room and staff who work in the front of the store cannot buy things they see as they come in. Items have to be placed in the store for 24 hours before they can be purchased by any volunteer. For Laughlin, adherence to those rules really reflect the care and attention the organization gives to offering the highest quality donated items to the public first.
And ALB Assistance League is a working organization, with a membership of about 140 individuals who actively participate. While presently on hold, Laughlin also loves to attend the monthly business and socializing lunches at the Bellingham Country Club, where members come together to eat and connect and conduct the group’s business. The meetings have moved to Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We all really miss seeing each other in person, but the virtual meetings have been good,” Laughlin says.
At the Thrift & Gift store, order and pride are paramount. Donations are sorted into various groups and become the domain of the volunteers who staff that group. Volunteers with expertise in clothing, shoes, jewelry, glassware, books, furniture and so on abound and each team meticulously prepares items for sale. Clothes are steamed, shoes are cleaned, old books are evaluated, and even socks are ironed! Items that may be more valuable than the store usually sells are put up for sale on eBay, and specials are sometimes listed on Facebook and their website.
ALB works with local organizations to provide them with items that are donated but can’t be sold, such as old towels that can go to the Whatcom Humane Society. ALB’s sense of community is continually expressed by reaching out to other groups like Women’s Care Shelter, Bellingham Theater Guild, Ragfinery and Salvation Army in the county to help them achieve their goals.
Assistance League members are proud of their organization and it shows. ALB has earned a Platinum Seal of Transparency through the nonprofit review organization GuideStar.
While today’s environment has temporarily closed the thrift store, which brings in the majority of the operating budget, and canceled the spring fundraiser, the group’s new motto says it all:
Keep an eye on the Assistance League of Bellingham website
for re-opening date coming soon!