McFarland second-grader Ezequiel Avalos was quite excited Thursday morning while at Operation School Bell — he got to miss school for a few hours, shop for a new school uniform and get a free book.
But one item stood out among the rest: He was going home with a toothbrush.
"I can brush my teeth with a new toothbrush now," Avalos said, with bright eyes and a shy smile on his face.
It's been a while since he's gotten a new toothbrush, but Operation School Bell, put on by Assistance League Bakersfield, was there to help him and more than 50 other students from the McFarland School District on Thursday, let alone the more than 150,000 students that have walked through the organization's doors in its 63-year history.
The all-volunteer, nonprofit Assistance League Bakersfield began in 1956 with one mission in mind: to provide services to as many students and adults in the community as possible.
The Bakersfield chapter — the 23rd chapter of the National Assistance League — was the first to introduce Operation School Bell, which provides children with a hygiene kit and school uniform items such as socks, underwear, shirts, pants or skorts, and a jacket.
It is now the signature philanthropic program for all Assistance League chapters.
"Once they get their clothing and they see their new packages of socks, shirts, pants for the boys, skorts for the girls, they get big smiles on their faces," said Dona Chertok, a member of the Milestone Celebration Committee.
Every Monday through Thursday, students in kindergarten through sixth grade come to the organization's 1924 Q St. location, where they're taken on a personal shopping experience. Volunteers help students navigate through aisles and shelves full of hoodies, shirts, socks and other items that are appropriate for the school's uniform.
Operation School Bell works with 27 school districts and more than 100 schools in Kern County. Children are referred by their schools.
Volunteer Vicki Roberts helped Avalos find the perfect hoodie to pair with the two shirts, pants and shorts in his shopping bag.
"I think we should try the next size up since you'll be wearing thicker shirts under this hoodie and maybe even another hoodie on top of it," Roberts said to the second-grader.
He nodded and tried on a bigger hoodie, which fit more comfortably.
"I like coming here," said Avalos about his second time at Operation School Bell.
After getting all the clothing items he needed, Avalos picked out a book to take home. His choice: "Star Wars: BB-8 On The Run."
"The reason why you join this is because good work is multiplied," said President Linda Stewart. "If you work with someone else, you don't do twice as much work, you do four times as much work ... dare to reach out your hand into the darkness to pull another hand into the light."
The organization also helps more than 100 students pick out clothing at local Target and Burlington stores on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Now that Assistance League Bakersfield has officially surpassed its goal of helping 150,000 students as of Tuesday, volunteers and members are ready to continue serving the community and helping even more children.
"When we finish dressing the kids and they get on the school bus and they have their bags with all their new stuff and we wave goodbye to them, it's a good feeling because it's that immediate sense of 'I've been able to give back and help someone in my community,'" Chertok said.
Community members can also help by donating new or gently used clothing, furniture, books, toys, shoes and other items to the Assistance League Bakersfield Bargain Box Thrift Store at 1924 Q St.
For more information, visit www.assistanceleague.org/bakersfield/.