Jewish Journal

UCLA Homeless Aid Group Has White House Hopes

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

March 1, 2012 | 1:49 pm

Rachel Sumekh, UCLA Hillel's vice president of social justice, leads Swipes for the Homeless at UCLA.

A UCLA student group that supports the homeless is one of 15 finalists in the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge. The group was chosen from hundreds of applicants, and online voters will choose the top five.

Rachel Sumekh, president of Swipes for the Homeless and social justice vice president for UCLA Hillel, says momentum is building to get clicks before voting closes March 3.

Five winning applicants will be invited to the White House for a culminating event 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 was founded by Jewish student Bryan Pezeshki, now a senior. 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 semester, 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 palettes 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. 

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 will do a year of service next year.

To vote in the Campus Champions for Change Challenge, click here.

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