UCLA homeless aid group headed to White House

A UCLA student group that supports the homeless is headed to the White House, one of five initiatives to win the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge. The White House selected 15 finalists from hundreds of applicants, and online voters chose the top five.

“It’s really cool that the president is giving recognition to such a strong movement of student leaders on campus who are trying to make a difference,” said Rachel Sumekh, president of Swipes for the Homeless and vice president for social justice for UCLA Hillel. “All the programs that were nominated were so innovative.”

Swipes for the Homeless, founded at UCLA in 2009, garnered more than 25,000 votes, earning the group’s leaders an invitation (but not airfare) to a March 15 event at the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. The student groups will have the opportunity to work with mtvU, an MTV channel for U.S. college campuses, to produce a short film that will air on MTV and mtvU.

UCLA Swipes for the Homeless, the only West Coast group to place in the top five, was founded by Jewish student Bryan Pezeshki, now a senior. At the end of a quarter in 2009, he and a bunch of friends redeemed unused vouchers on their prepaid meal plan to purchase sandwiches, which they delivered to people living on the streets of Westwood, near campus.

They cashed in about 300 swipes that quarter, then decided to organize and urge other students to donate swipes off their meal cards. Unused meal vouchers don’t roll over at the end of the quarter, so in the past students would either purchase nonperishables, such as drinks and chips, or lose the money.

Last quarter, UCLA students donated 7,400 swipes at redeeming stations set up at the dorms at the end of the quarter. Now, in addition to some prepared food, UCLA Dining Services provides pallets of packaged food, which the students deliver to homeless shelters, to food banks and to people on the streets.

Some of the food also stays on campus, stocking a discreet, unstaffed food closet where any student can pick up free food. Around 50 students a day make use of the closet, said Sumekh, who is also active in keeping the food closet running.

Pezeshki, a senior in neuroscience who is applying to medical school, is now working on taking the concept national. He established Swipes for the Homeless as an independent non-profit, and 10 other universities are running the program.

Publicity from the Campus Champions of Change Challenge has also brought in more phone calls from other universities interested in the program, and from donors, Sumekh said.

Sumekh says a large number of the Swipes volunteers are also active in UCLA Hillel. Under the leadership of its director of Jewish life, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, UCLA Hillel has incorporated more social justice work into its activities through its Repair the World Street Team, which helps students take on leadership roles in the area of social justice.

Sumekh, a Street Team intern, participated in a spring break program that took her to on-the-ground efforts to aid the needy, and she visits schools in disadvantaged areas to talk to students about college.

Sumekh is graduating this year with a degree in history and minor in complex human systems, and plans to do a year of service next year.

The other winners in Campus Champions for Change Challenge were UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative, which turns campus lawns into sustainable, edible gardens; The Full Circle Food Pantry at University of Arkansas, established to help students in financial crisis; The Local Loans Project at Grinnell College, a microfinance initiative to serve rural Iowa; and Moneythink at University of Chicago, where students mentor at risk-teens about financial literacy.