Students have new ways to help the hungry and homeless

Homelessness is a legitimate issue throughout California, and Sonoma County is no exception. The 2011 Sonoma County Homeless Count Survey found 4,539 homeless people in the county’s population that year, according to the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

However, many residents still seek a roof over their heads or a hot meal for the night, Sonoma State University students have new opportunities to help them starting this month.

Sonoma State hosted Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week from Nov. 7 – 9. This annual celebration is one of JUMP’s many programs aiming to inform students about “populations that are at risk or marginalized” in Sonoma County, according to Casey Elbert, JUMP’s director of human services.

“Last year it was a full week, so this year I shortened it to three days, hoping that if you shorten it, the turnout would be better for those three days,” Elbert said.

Around 75 students attended the first day of this year’s Awareness Week, which focused on a Hunger Banquet where students could experience eating conditions for third world countries, Elbert said. On Nov. 8, students got to package food at the Redwood Empire Food Bank. During the final night, students could stop by Ballroom B of the Student Center to help make tie blankets to donate to shelters in Sonoma County.

Elbert said she has learned a lot about less privileged people through her work with JUMP and Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week.

“It’s definitely eye-opening, because in this college atmosphere you don’t really see a lot of the community,” Elbert said.

Throughout the week, students could drop off socks, combs, canned food and other items at donation bins in the Student Center, according to a JUMP flier. But these are not the only donation bins present at Sonoma State--orange containers from Redwood Empire Food Bank are available on-campus for canned food donations during the bank’s annual Food & Funds Drive.

These bins are also located in nearby grocery stores like Safeway and Oliver’s Market, as reported by The Community Voice. One is right inside the 7-Eleven on East Cotati Avenue, across from Sonoma State campus.

Satnam Dugh, the store’s manager, said that he encourages customers to buy canned food from the store to donate to Redwood Empire Food Bank.

“Whatever people will give, we’ll call [Redwood Empire],” Dugh said.

Allison Goodwin, director of programs at Redwood Empire, said that students can also support the cause by volunteering for Safeway Day, a Nov. 19 event where helpers will promote the Food and Funds Drive.

“Students can also host a virtual food drive on our website, as well as bring canned goods to their local grocery store to drop in our orange barrels,” Goodwin said.

Sonoma State students have helped out at the Rohnert Park Safeway location in the past, but none have signed up for this year’s Safeway Day, according to Goodwin.

“Safeway Day is definitely the priority and the REFB always loves more helping hands to fight hunger,” Goodwin said.

Students looking to help homeless children in the area also have an outlet in the form of Love in a Shoebox, which operates out of Expressway Self Storage. The yearly gift drive prepares specialized packages containing toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, washcloths, school supplies and entertainment items for donation to people aged 18 and younger, according to Expressway Self Storage assistant manager Traci Sell.

“We mostly work with groups that work with homeless and foster children,” Sell said.

The boxes can be provided year-round for special occasions, but many are packed during the months of October, November and December to be handed out at Christmas parties held by churches such as the Redwood Gospel Mission, Sell said.

“I’ve been there, where I couldn’t afford to buy my kids a Christmas present… it’s the most horrible feeling any parent could ever have,” Sell said. “So just knowing that I’m helping that mom or that dad not feel bad makes me feel good.”

Sell said anyone can sign up to donate items or pack boxes for Love in a Shoebox

 “It’s not about us, it’s about these little kids,” Sell said. “That one box that kid got for Christmas might be the first Christmas present he’s ever had, and it might change his life.”

For more information on service opportunities available through JUMP, contact Casey Elbert at jump.humanservices@sonoma.edu.

To sign up for Safeway Day or to learn more about Redwood Empire Food Bank’s services, contact Helen Myers at hmeyers@refb.org

To sign up as a volunteer for Love in a Shoebox, call (707) 588-8878.