With winter formal season quickly approaching, members of the nonprofit Assistance League of Fresno are readying one of their six philanthropic programs: Dream Dress.
In an upstairs Paris-themed hideaway near the Assistance League Thrift Boutique at 4771 N. Blackstone in Fresno, more than 2,000 prom and formal dresses hang on racks along with hundreds of pairs of high heels and shelves of jewelry and evening bags.
Since Dream Dress opened three years ago, more than 500 teen girls in need from Clovis, Fresno and beyond have visited the boutique and walked away fully decked-out for their upcoming school dances — at no cost.
“A social worker was talking about what a shame it was that a lot of girls in foster care didn’t attend prom or formal because they couldn’t afford a fancy dress … that’s how this program began,” said Janet Bunting, a longtime Assistance League member and Thrift Boutique chair. “The girls must have a referral from their social worker or even a school counselor to come in; they have to be truly in need.”
Dream Dress even has corsages and matching boutonnieres for the girls to wear along with their dates, Bunting said.
“They get to keep it all,” she said. “And it’s not just for prom or formal. They can be referred here if they need a dress for graduation, or maybe they’re in their school’s choir and need a dress for a performance.”
Many of the dresses have been donated by Keri Frazier, the owner of Little Black Dress Boutique in Fresno, while others were donated by Assistance League’s high school counterparts, Assisteens.
Nearly 100 Assisteens are spread out through Fresno County, including several at Clovis high schools, said Assistance League of Fresno president Mary Jane Sewill.
The junior volunteers help the Assistance League with its many projects, along with doing separate philanthropic services such as serving meals at the Poverello House, volunteering at animal shelters and hosting parties for seniors at Nazareth House of Fresno assisted living facility, Sewill said.
Dream Dress is just one of six major projects that Assistance League supports year-round to give back to the local community.
“Everything each individual chapter does stays here; we’re truly helping our community,” Sewill said. “And the community also helps us a lot; we are blessed that we get all of these donations.”
AL has been in the Fresno/Clovis area for 27 years, but was a guild for 6 years before becoming chartered, Sewill said.
Each program is supported by the Assistance League Thrift Boutique, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and staffed completely by volunteers. The thrift store has existed for about 15 years, Sewill said.
“Last year the thrift boutique was able to give the chapter $125,000 after we paid the rent, lights and phone bill,” Bunting said.
That money is used to fund Operation School Bell, Assistance League’s signature program nationally, which outfits kindergarten through eighth-grade students with school clothes and shoes. Last year almost 3,000 students from 100 schools in Clovis, Fresno and Central unified school districts were given new clothing, Bunting said.
“The schools give us the names of kids in need and we send out letters to those students,” she said. “The parents have to take the letters to Target (in Clovis and Fresno) and there is a gift card there waiting for them that they can use on clothes, shoes, underwear … whatever they need.”
Operation Bear Hug, the organization’s longest-running project, provides stuffed teddy bears to the Clovis Police Department and other first responder agencies to give to children in crisis situations.
“It’s just something to comfort them and bring a smile to their face,” Bunting said. “And it’s not just the small children who get excited about the teddy bear, a lot of the older children also find comfort.”
Operation Gift Box was just completed, with 750 care packages being sent out to house-bound seniors. Assistance League partners with the Fresno Madera Agency on Aging to distribute boxes with useful items to Meals on Wheels recipients.
“It shows them that they’re not forgotten,” Bunting said of the seniors. “For some, it’s the only gift they get all season.”
Another AL program gives seniors the opportunity to help others. Busy Hands is a group of more than 20 women at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens retirement village who knit and crochet items to donate to those in need.
AL provides Busy Hands regularly with yarn, and the group knits and crochets blankets, scarves, caps, slippers and more for the Marjaree Mason Center, Pregnancy Care Center and Valley Teen Ranch, Bunting said.
Assistance League’s newest program, Operation Caring, began last year and has already helped more than 500 victims of sexual assault and abuse, Bunting said.
Volunteers assemble kits containing fresh clothing and toiletries, which are distributed to victims.
AL recently formed an advisory council that will provide experience and wisdom to enhance the chapter’s programs and better serve the community.
“The members of our advisory council have expertise in areas that we may need help in,” Sewill said. “For instance … real estate and media/marketing.”
The members of the advisory council are Jeff Negrete, regional market president for I Heart Media; attorney Laura Ward; Little Black Dress business owner Keri Frazier; marketing specialist Jessica Young from Newmarket Grub Pearson Commercial Real Estate; and Michelle Taylor, counselor at Fort Miller Middle School.
The members hope the advisory council will also help them spread the word about their hardworking organization.
“We’re still not as well known as we wish we were,” Sewill said.
Sewill has been a member for 20 years; this is her second term as president.
“The members are very, very dedicated. Everybody’s awesome; they work so hard,” she said.
There are no requirements for joining the group, other than $75 in membership dues.
“You can choose the programs you want to work for and you can put as much time or as little time as you want into it.
Assistance League of Fresno meets at 11:30 a.m. on the fourth Monday of every month in the chapter house at 4771 N. Blackstone Ave. Prospective members from all over Fresno County are welcome to come to a meeting and learn more about the organization.