CSUN Unified We Serve delivers Thanksgiving dinner to families in need

Martha Garcia, a single mother of three, recently moved to back to California from Arizona after things didn’t work out with the father of her four-year-old son, Christopher Caraveo.

She currently rents a room in a house owned by a friend’s cousin, and the family has lived there since September while they attempt to get situated.

“It’s been a little bit here, a little bit there, but being able to have a place to get on our feet has helped a lot,” Garcia said.

Garcia originally didn’t have plans for Thanksgiving, but that changed Monday night when eight members of Unified We Serve (UWS), a volunteer organization at CSUN, personally delivered food to her and her family at their home.

Garcia’s family was chosen through the organization’s Adopt-A-Family program, which chooses families in need and provides them with Thanksgiving food. The program was started five years ago by UWS and works with Meet Each Need with Dignity (MEND), a nonprofit organization that  addresses poverty, said Justin Weiss, activities coordinator for volunteer programs and services at the Matador Involvement Center.

In Los Angeles, about 26 percent of families are living below the poverty line, according to statistics from city-data.com. That number rises to 47 percent when the family consists of a single mother.

Morgan Jones (Left), 21, a communications major, Cassandra Irvin (Middle), 22, a sociology major, and Daisy Gonzalez, 23, a sociology and criminology major, inspect a frozen turkey at a VONS grocery store on Nov. 25. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

Morgan Jones (Left), 21, a communications major, Cassandra Irvin (Middle), 22, a sociology major, and Daisy Gonzalez, 23, a sociology and criminology major, inspect a frozen turkey at a VONS grocery store on Nov. 25. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

The members of UWS started their night at VONS supermarket after meeting in the G3 parking lot of CSUN at around 7 p.m. Once inside the grocery store, they split into two groups and tag-teamed the gathering of Thanksgiving items and other foods which consisted of a frozen turkey, canned goods, cereal, milk, cake mix, stuffing and others.

Daisy Gonzalez, senior sociology and criminology major, has volunteered with UWS for two years. She enjoys both aspects of being involved with delivering Thanksgiving food to families in need.

Members of Unified We Serve file out of a VONS grocery story before heading off to the organizations adopted family, the Garcia's house on Nov. 25. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

Members of Unified We Serve file out of a VONS grocery story before heading off to the organizations adopted family, the Garcia’s house on Nov. 25. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

“It’s one experience when you’re shopping (for their dinner) because we get to be with our friends and interact (with) our group members, and then it’s a whole other experience when you go and drop off the food to the families because you get to see their reactions,” Garcia said.

The next stop on the journey was Garcia’s house, located about 10 minutes from the school. The volunteers arrived shortly after 9 p.m., and were greeted by Garcia and her youngest son at the gate.

Members of Unified We Serve and Martha Garcia share a group hug after the volunteers delivered Thanksgiving food to Garcia's home on Nov. 25. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

Members of Unified We Serve and Martha Garcia share a group hug after the volunteers delivered Thanksgiving food to Garcia’s home on Nov. 25. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

After everyone filed inside the home, Garcia was surprised at the amount of goods placed on her dining-room table.

“This is more than I expected,” Garcia said when she saw the boxes of food. “This is going to help us a lot.”

Following an exchange of thank-yous and a group picture, the eight UWS members, Garcia and her son gave each other a large group hug.

Travis White, junior criminology major and student assistant for UWS, has delivered Thanksgiving food for families for three years and enjoys the families’ reactions when the volunteers show up on their doorsteps.

“Just seeing the excitement on their faces for the holidays makes me feel really great,” White said.

White finds this experience different than when he worked with MEND assessing a family’s level of need.

“It was just a little bit different this time because I was actually providing the food this time instead of just evaluating her,” White said. “It makes me a lot more happy actually providing food for her instead of just evaluating her and asking her questions about how she’s living.”

In addition to the money they raised to pay for the Thanksgiving food for Garcia and her children, the group also bought and donated a gift card from Target.

“A lot of years we’ve done (the dinner delivery), we’ve always tried to go above and beyond,” White said.

Participating in this deed reminds White of what he loves about the Thanksgiving holiday.

Members of Unified We Serve (UWS), Martha Garcia and her son Christopher Caraveo after UWS gave them food for Thanksgiving. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

Members of Unified We Serve (UWS), Martha Garcia and her son Christopher Caraveo after UWS gave them food for Thanksgiving. Photo credit: Alex Vejar / Daily Sundial

“It brings families together,” White said. “Especially around this time, I always do Adopt-A-Family with Unified We Serve, so we bring the Unified We Serve family together to help another family come together for Thanksgiving.”

Gonzalez mentioned the happiness on Caraveo’s face when he saw the boxes of food as an example of the positives that can come from this experience.

“You feel the pleasure of helping other people,” Gonzalez said. “You get to see the joy in their face and know that they’re going to have a good Thanksgiving because we were able to help them.”

Garcia was glad she could provide the kind of Thanksgiving that she feels her children should have.

“Thinking that when you were with your parents and you have those big dinners, you want to do the same for your kids, and all of a sudden you can’t,” Garcia said. “It breaks your heart because you should be able to.”

With the feast provided by UWS, Garcia said she will now attempt to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family and those living in the house.

“I’m very happy,” Garcia said. “It’s like everything’s coming together.”

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CSUN student and former extra on “Hannah Montana” focuses on community service in the Valley

Penelope Lopez and Miley Cyrus can say they have one thing in common: they both worked on the television show “Hannah Montana.”

However, that is where the similarities end.

While Cyrus has successfully twerked her way into the public eye with her recent MTV Video Music Awards performance, Lopez is busy performing a different kind of  service.

“There’s a lot of people out there that don’t have what we have, so you always want to give back and see how much you can help,” Lopez said while sitting in the Matador Involvement Center, where she currently works as an event assistant with Unified We Serve, CSUN’s volunteer program.

While she was only an extra on “Hannah Montana,” Lopez believes the experience influenced her development from a pre-teen into the adult she is today.

“At first, it was really hard for me to even speak in front of a crowd or be able to go up to a stranger and say hello, so that really helped me, especially at a younger age, (to) come out of my shell,” Lopez said about her 15 minutes of fame.

Serving her community has been a part of Lopez’s life since starting her own club in high school, Helping Our Teens. The club raised enough money to send seven couples to prom and transformed an entire classroom into a place where financially-strained students could obtain donated prom dresses.

Lopez said she loves seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they thank her for her generosity.

“(I like) just knowing that they don’t expect to be helped, but we’re there to help, and the joy of knowing that we’re able to help someone put a smile on their face, make their day a little brighter,” she said.

During her time at CSUN, Lopez has majored in graphic design, sociology and psychology. She recently changed her major to journalism with an emphasis in public relations.

In addition to Unified We Serve, Lopez is also a member of Colleges Against Cancer, and the cultural sorority Alpha Pi Sigma.

Junior criminology major Travis White has known Lopez since they met last year at a CSUN Relay For Life event. When they started working together in the Involvement Center White said they became instant best friends and now call each other “partners in crime.”

White feels Lopez’s role at the Involvement Center is indicative of who she is as a person.

“For this position, you have to be good with people, good with asking and answering questions, looking to improve the community (and) trying to outreach as best as possible,” White said. “That’s all of the things that she does outstandingly.”

White and his coworkers like to have a little fun with Lopez’s stint in the entertainment industry.

“Ever since she told us she was in Hannah Montana,” White said, “we’ve always been trying to find old Hannah Montana shows to see if that was really true or not.”

Justin Weiss, activities coordinator for volunteer programs at the Matador Involvement Center, has worked with Lopez since July and says she has already made a big impact on him.

“Penny is one of the most impressive students I’ve ever worked with,” Weiss said. “She has the ability to have an extremely caring heart and the desire to help everybody she comes in contact with, coupled with an incredibly professional skill set.”

Weiss said he could see Lopez “going very far in whatever she decides to do.”

“She has the ability to connect so well that I know that regardless of what kind of field she goes into, she’s going to be very successful at it,” Weiss said.

White hopes that his bond with Lopez will last long after they have graduated CSUN.

“After working with all the Unified We Serve (staff), I hope I can say that I hung out with her a lot outside of Unified We Serve,” White said. “She’s a really great friend to have.”