When Mary Elaine Burgess joined the Assistance League of Everett a half-century ago, volunteerism showed her a side of life she hadn’t experienced growing up.
“I’d come home and tell my kids about a family with two daughters who had to alternate going to school because they had one pair of shoes,” she said.
On Thursday, the nonprofit that runs Operation School Bell, a program that provides new clothing for families in need, honored the Everett woman with its Circle of Honor Award.
Burgess, 91, joined the Assistance League in 1968. In more than 50 years, she’s filled a long list of roles with the group: president, treasurer, chairwoman of philanthropic programs and membership committees.
She has spent hours and hours sorting and pricing in the thrift shop that supports the group’s programs, helped with Operation School Bell as kids are given new wardrobes, and worked to provide $200 graduation awards to help teens with senior-year expenses.
“Sometimes they’re the first in their family to graduate,” she said.
Burgess received the Circle of Honor Award, among the national organization’s top honors, at Assistance League of Everett’s annual meeting at the Everett Golf and Country Club.
“I’m still involved,” said Burgess, whose grandfather August Erickson started Everett’s Erickson Brothers Furniture store in 1912. She worked 40 years at the store, now Erickson Furniture, primarily as office manager. She and her husband also raised five children.
These days, Burgess said, “I live in my fifth-grade classroom.” Her home is Washington Oakes, the senior living community housed in the renovated Washington School building in north Everett where Burgess was once a student.
With their mother Thursday were Burgess’ daughters Mj Benner, of Vancouver, Washington, and Jan Fortier, of Snohomish. Both were part of Assisteens, a youth auxiliary of the Assistance League. Benner was the teen group’s president while her mom was leader of Assistance League of Everett.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, North County Fire/EMS, headquartered in Stanwood, received the National Operation School Bell award. Two firefighters from the agency also known as North County Regional Fire Authority, Lt. Gary Lingel and Gabe Buonassissi, were there to receive the award.
Since the 2008–2009 school year, the agency’s firefighters have driven students from low-income families in the Stanwood-Camano School District to Operation School Bell.
On their own time, firefighters have transported 2,731 students over the last decade to the Everett agency, where kids are outfitted with new clothes for school. They use 13-passenger vans borrowed from Josephine Caring Community, a senior facility in Stanwood. Firefighters also help at a store where kids are outfitted with new shoes.
“Gary has driven on most every trip,” said Assistance League member Eva Bryce. Ten years ago, Bryce said, the Stanwood-Camano School District stopped providing transportation to Operation School Bell’s Everett site.
For the 2018–2019 school year, Assistance League of Everett provided new clothes to 3,660 students at its in-house clothing program, and to 972 teens through a partnership with Fred Meyer. Recipients come from more than a dozen local school districts.
“I believe in the cause, and also the friendships I’ve made,” Burgess said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Assistance League of Everett is headquartered at 5107 Evergreen Way, where it operates a thrift store that helps support its charitable efforts. Since 1965, its Operation School Bell has provided school clothing to nearly 93,000 students. Information: http://assistanceleagueofeverett.org/