Business & Real Estate

Assistance League closes Costume Bank, hands off HOME program

Courtesy of Assistance League of Los Altos
End of era: Los Altos Fire Chief Dick Bassett, above left, dressed as Napoleon, clowns around in 1966 with local businessmen wearing outfits from the Costume Bank.

After nearly 60 years of service to the community, Assistance League of Los Altos is changing its nonprofit model by eliminating two of its time-honored programs – including the Costume Bank on State Street – to accommodate a lifestyle far different from the one their founders knew.

The league in June decided to shutter the Costume Bank as well as withdraw from overseeing operations of its long-standing HOME program at Stanford Health Care, which provides subsidized, temporary housing to out-of-town patients undergoing treatment for an extended period of time.

Costume Bank enters final season

Adele Hennig, president of Assistance League of Los Altos, said the changing nature of volunteerism is ultimately what will close the Costume Bank for good after the Halloween season.

After league volunteers sell the thousands of costumes and accessories that line the walls – except some precious, vintage pieces – during a sale set to begin Sept. 6 and end whenever the racks are empty, the estimated 25 members of Assistance League will transition to revised responsibilities.

Purchased by the league in 1968, the Costume Bank’s building, the old fire station at 169 State St., will not be sold but rather used for other league projects and as a meeting place for members. The league uses sheds on the property to store items such as backpacks and school supplies for its Operation School Bell program, and diapers, clothing and blankets for its Baby Bundles partnership with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.

For years, the league has rented out its back patio to local groups and has spent little on renovating the old building – the shower facilities firefighters used still exist behind the sales floor – but the nonprofit Costume Bank has been taking a financial toll rather than providing a steady revenue stream for the league’s other programs.

Approximately 95 percent of the Costume Bank’s profits directly support its various other projects, which has made it difficult for the Assistance League to stay afloat, spokeswoman Katie Heley said. With the added pressure of the poor local retail climate and e-commerce powerhouses such as eBay and Amazon, it’s become harder to do good.

“We have to be cutthroat about this,” Hennig said. “If we don’t have the volunteers, we have to shut the doors. That makes you think about if it’s viable.”

Another obstacle is the group’s small size – people have so many other options for volunteering, Hennig said. Being a membership, dues-paying association requires a level of commitment that volunteers with only a few hours to devote once in a while are not interested in. Those who are aware of the league’s activities and want to join a group of go-getters look past that, Heley said.

“This is not a timid group of women,” she said with a chuckle. “That’ll either attract you or weed you out in some ways.”

Members have tried to remain as thrifty and forward-thinking as the league’s founders. In the early 1960s, a time when women were not heavily involved in business or entrepreneurship, they focused on purchasing property and socializing with the community. Current members keep the spirit alive by hosting poker nights and wine walks.

“We like to have our hands on what’s going on,” Hennig said.

An evolving workforce

A determining factor in Assistance League’s decision to downsize: an evolving workforce that has led to a dearth of volunteers.

Volunteers in today’s Silicon Valley share a common trait with those from generations past: wanting to help those in need. The problem? They have the desire, but they lack the time.

“Part of why we have accepted this transition is because of how women’s lives have changed (since the HOME program started),” said Stanford Hospital spokeswoman Karen Nelson.

Stanford, which has assumed oversight of the HOME program, has closed the apartments for a month to make minor upgrades, according to Nelson, who emphasized that hospital staff realize what a hardship it is for affected families to find reasonable accommodations anywhere in the South Bay. They are working, she added, to ensure that the league’s work was not in vain.

“Retirement is now a break for a woman,” Nelson said of the difficulty in finding volunteers. “It’s just a sign of the times.”

A Google search provides confirmation of the changing times: 157 million results pop up in 0.54 seconds in answer to the inquiry “What percentage of women make up today’s workforce?”

Assistance League of Los Altos was chartered in 1961. According to the U.S. Census report “Women in the Workforce,” women composed 14 percent of the full-time workforce in 1967. By 2009, the total had climbed to 43 percent.

The U.S. Department of Labor published a report in 2016 documenting even further growth, revealing that 52 percent of women ages 16 and older were putting in full-time hours. In total, at 74.6 million workers, they made up 47 percent of the workforce that year.

Running any charity endeavor, including the HOME program, is a simulation of a full-time job, agreed Nelson and Hennig. The majority of today’s aspiring volunteers, however, are interested in signing up around their work and family schedules for events lasting a few days, or even a few hours.

The cost of living in Silicon Valley, especially, has thrown several more families into the dual-income category. Women have stopped following and started leading by becoming family breadwinners in overwhelming numbers. In 2014, women were the sole or primary provider in four in 10 households with children younger than age 18, the Pew Research Institute reported.

But a big paycheck comes with the big price of less time, increasingly so when a Bay Area commute is added to the equation. Between work, being on the road and tending to their homes, even working women with the best hearts have reduced availability.

Despite the challenges, Hennig stressed that the league is not folding. With the “especially bittersweet” closing of the Costume Bank, Heley said, and the uncertainty of what the soon-to-be vacant building will be used for, the league will move forward by learning to address the changing needs of the community – and volunteers – around them.

With the widening income gap in Silicon Valley, community service is in high demand, offering the opportunity to continue the league’s vision while appealing to the trend of short-term volunteerism.

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