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December 17, 2001

UCSC staffers show holiday spirit by helping needy

By Jennifer McNulty

Rachel Huff's office looks like Santa's workshop, piled high with toys for needy children donated by her colleagues in UCSC's Physical Plant.

Physical Plant staffers have a tradition of "adopting" a family for the holidays, providing food, clothing and other gifts. With some of the presents are, from left, Rachel Huff, business coordinator, building and utility services; Mike Hanson, superintendent for the Central Heating Plant; Lynne Riccio, administrative assistant, and Jim West, senior superintendent, both of building and utility services. Photo: Jennifer McNulty
Every year, Physical Plant staff members team up to "adopt a family," buying gifts, jackets, and food certificates for families in need during the holiday season. Huff works with the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center to coordinate donors and recipients, and wrapped gifts are distributed through local nonprofits that serve the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and others.

"People in Physical Plant really step up to the plate," said Huff. "After September 11, people have been saying, 'How can I help? How can I contribute to my community?' This is one way."

Huff and her coworkers are some of the many UCSC staff members who give generously to make the holidays festive. "Almost everyone participates, whether by buying gifts, shopping, or wrapping presents," said Huff. "It's nice."

Campus firefighters have teamed up with their counterparts in the city of Santa Cruz to collect new, unwrapped "toys for tots." Collection barrels are in the fire station and at the police department, said fire apparatus engineer Troy Souza, who is coordinating the campus toy drive.

"I came back from my four days off and toys were overflowing the barrel," said Souza, who took over the project this year and whose own kids, ages 11 and 13, dropped off toys just after Thanksgiving.

"Kids hit a soft spot in you, and during the holidays, I always think of children in need who don't get what others get," said Souza. "This is a way to put a smile on a kid's face."

Custodian Kevin Barry put smiles on lots of faces when he helped cook Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at the Santa Cruz Veterans Hall, a tradition he started three or four years ago.

"I saw an ad in the paper that they needed cooks," said Barry, a former commercial chef. "Now they call me every year. It's great. And it's sad, too, to realize that all these people don't have anywhere else to go for their holiday dinners. We're blessed. We could go anywhere we want."

Payroll personnel supervisor Myriah Jasper works year-round with Grandma Sue's Community Project, a neighborhood-based organization that operates a food bank and provides other services for the working poor. In September, the focus was on getting back-to-school supplies for children; now the focus is on Christmas.

"We get requests right up to Christmas Day," said Jasper. "These are working people who earn $6 or $8 an hour and are raising four or five kids. Christmas is a really hard time for these folks, and we just do as much as we can."

Jasper is distributing "wish stars" with specific gift requests (bus passes, warm jackets, and shoes are frequent needs) as well as accepting cash contributions to the project. She has some suggestions for those who wonder what's popular with teenagers, too.

"They really like gift certificates that you can get at Safeway for places like Blockbuster, the Wherehouse, and even Office Max, if you can believe it," said Jasper. "A $10 gift certificate is really a big deal for them. It really is."

Kresge residential life coordinator Ginny Fitzmaurice collects toys for a Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation toy drive, and she said her UCSC colleagues are always eager to participate.

"People here are really anxious to contribute," said Fitzmaurice. "It's not hard to ask, and it's not hard to get contributions. People are eager to have an avenue to express their generosity."

For three years, Larry Trujillo has participated in the Christmas Project, which distributes gifts to residents of migrant labor camps. Project volunteers ask each child and adult what he or she wants for Christmas, then pass those specifics along to donors, who know the first name, age, and sex of each individual for whom they're shopping. On Christmas Eve, volunteers transport the gifts to the camps, where "Santa Claus" distributes the presents.

"It's an opportunity to give some presents to kids that really need them," said Trujillo, director of the Chicano Latino Student Life Resource Center. "Last year, we were able to buy a couple of bikes for two kids who never would've gotten them otherwise." The dealers helped, too, selling the bikes at cost and donating helmets and locks.

"I can just imagine what this little girl, Christina, must have thought when Santa Claus gave her this hot pink bike with all the luxury stuff on it," said Trujillo, who this year will shop for an 11-year-old boy who wants a remote-control car. "It's a great project," he said. "It's really rewarding."

Each of the 42 gift requests he had was snapped up by UCSC staff and students in the first week, said Trujillo. Marcia Levitsky, academic adviser at College Nine, bought a tea set and a party dress for a 4-year-old girl named Alejandrina.

"I only have a son, so I take such joy shopping for little girls. It felt so good to do that," said Levitsky. "I spent a little bit of money, but it felt like such a good investment. Every little girl should be able to dress like a princess once in her life."

In University Relations, Linda Moore had to turn away several colleagues who wanted to buy gifts for needy children through a project run by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. "I brought in tags for 10 children, and they were all picked up right away," said Moore. "I've had to turn down two requests."

Sonia Miraglia, assistant director of evaluations in the Admissions Office, told Moore about the project while the two were commuting together in the vanpool. University Relations "always takes a lot of names and wants to take more," said Mirgalia. "They're our biggest supporter."

This year, the Admissions Office staff distributed 68 gift requests among the Hahn and Cookhouse buildings, up from about 20 names when they began the project six years ago. "It's really a great feeling for everybody," said Miraglia. "Some people take four or five names, and they make an effort to really wrap the gifts nicely so the children will know they're special."

For Moore, the project takes the guesswork out of shopping for needy children and reminds her of what the holidays are all about. "Too often, we get wrapped up in our own families and what they want, and they aren't really that needy," she said. "This gives me an opportunity to brighten a child's Christmas."

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