Former Wichita grocery store now stocks clothes for kids in need

Step into what once was a meat freezer at the former Dillons grocery store at 13th and Waco, through vertical strips of heavy-duty plastic, and you’ll see boxes of children’s coats and sweatshirts.

Inside the loading dock, shelves teem with pants and shirts.

In a place where cashiers once sacked bread, milk and eggs for customers, the volunteers of Operation School Bell are filling bags with clothing and other supplies for Wichita’s children in need.

“We are so excited to be here, and so grateful,” said Jolene Burgess, the project’s chairwoman. “The space is amazing.”

Nearly two years after the Wichita school district approved a $2 million deal to purchase a former Dillons store near North High School, the building is being used as an office, warehouse and distribution center for Operation School Bell, a project of the Assistance League.

The district has no immediate plans for the property, though officials still are considering renovating it to use for technical education programs.

Dillons closed the 44,000-square-foot store just east of North High in 2008 and relocated to 21st and Amidon.

In the meantime, the old Dillons parking lot is being used for student parking and buses. And crews recently refurbished a small portion of the store for Operation School Bell, which gives clothing, shoe vouchers and other supplies to Wichita children nominated by school social workers.

The nonprofit group moved to the former Dillons store this month from a much smaller space at Dunbar Learning Center, a district-owned building near Ninth and Cleveland.

Thursday morning, volunteers greeted school social workers, who nominate needy children and pick up supplies for them. Last year, Operation School Bell spent about $165,000 to provide free clothing, including school uniforms, to about 4,000 children.

“There’s so much need out there, and it just grows and grows,” said Burgess, the project chairwoman.

Nearly three-fourths of children in Wichita schools are part of the federally funded free- and reduced-price lunch program, a common indicator of poverty.

Operation School Bell is funded through the Assistance League’s fundraisers and thrift shop, as well as with grants and donations. The group buys new clothing in bulk to get the best deals, Burgess said.

School social workers pick up the clothes to give to students in August through February, although the group often will fill requests through May. Most of the requests being filled this month are for shoe vouchers, school uniforms and other school clothes.

“For many of these kids, this is the only new outfit they’ll get,” Burgess said.

Signs of the former Dillons store’s previous life are everywhere, from the swinging doors to the old meat department to a handwritten sign on one wall that says, “Do not stack milk on top of these eggs.”

Now shelves are packed with khaki slacks, blue polo shirts, blue jeans, socks and underwear – and Operation School Bell volunteers love it.

“They’ve been so good to us, so generous,” Burgess said of the district for lending her group the larger space. “We’re glad they thought of us.”