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By Cesar Canizales
Students and staff in the Dallas County Community College District know that many of their classmates face difficult and stressful situations in their lives – financial strains, family obligations and many other factors – so they come up with ways to help other people in need.
Case in point: Juan Martinez, an English major at Richland College. Last summer while scrambling to get all of his school supplies – notebooks, paper, pens and other materials – he figured that other students probably were in the same situation. So Juan proposed setting up an exchange program at the school with the help of a faculty member, English instructor Justine White.
White thought Martinez's idea was "ingenious," and together they launched the Student Supply Exchange at the beginning of the fall 2015 semester.
"When I came up with the idea, I was throwing away lots of pens, but I needed other stuff. I thought there had to be other students with an abundance of one thing but who needed other stuff, so why not have a give-and-take program – 'I need what you have and you need what I have,'" Martinez said.
Students and staff donate school supplies and put them in a cabinet in Richland's English Corner, a classroom where instructors and other volunteers tutor students. Students who need supplies simply go to the English Corner and take what they need from the cabinet.
The English Corner seemed like a natural place to set up the exchange program, according to White. "We always have students here, whether they are volunteering or being tutored, so the kids are always asking, 'What can we do to help each other?' Juan came up with this great idea, and the kids have jumped on it. All the volunteers are out telling people that if they need supplies, if financial aid didn't come in on time, come down and get supplies."
People donate all sorts of basic school supplies, some new and some slightly used, but it is all usable for students who may not have all the materials they need for their classes. White said a veteran who gets money for his education donated a large amount of supplies because he didn't need it all and wanted someone else to use them.
Students who take supplies don't have to give anything back, but White said they ask people who take materials to bring something later, if they can.
"We just encourage students to come get it. Or, if I have a student in class who says he needs a pen, I just tell him to go to the English Corner to get one. It's one more way for us to help students have less stress about going to school. I tell them, 'Don't worry if you don't have all your stuff. Just go to class and learn,'" White added.
Martinez, who wants to become a writer and earn a doctorate, said the program does not include textbooks because a book exchange bulletin board already exists at Richland and he didn't want to infringe on it. He said he has not approached private businesses to ask for donations because he just wants to keep the exchange as a "students helping students" program.
For some students at El Centro College, it's not just about helping other students; it's about helping the community and the homeless in particular.
Michael Higgins, athletic program assistant at El Centro's main campus, has arranged a coat drive for the homeless by organizing a basketball game between staff and students every fall for the last three years. Higgins said the effort usually yields between 50 and 100 coats that he takes to local homeless shelters.
"It's fun, but at the same time, it's making a difference, and that's my main goal: to make a difference and show the students that there are a lot of people who don't have anything. We don't always count our blessings for what we do have, and some individuals don't have anything," said Higgins.
People who play in the game have to donate a new or slightly-used coat, but any student or staff member at the college can donate items.
Thaddeaus Kuykendall, an art student at El Centro, played in this year's game. He said, "We get everyone involved, from the people who use the gym to everybody who hangs out at the school's Student Life Center. It's a good thing for us to give back to the community. We know it's going to get cold, so we have jackets that we can give them."
Chris Jeter, who works in the facilities department at the college, said, "I love giving back to the community and hanging out with the fellows. It's just a good thing for the community, for the college and for the district."
At North Lake College, the Blazer Store has been helping students and members of the community for more than a decade.
The school's Journalism Club launched the store after the 9/11 attacks, when many students were struggling because their parents had lost their jobs. What started as a one-time donation drive in front of the bookstore turned into the present-day store, where people use "Blazer Bucks" to "buy" clothing, food and school supplies.
Sasha Ceart, a North Lake history student who manages the store, said students and the community need the Blazer Store. She explained, "Students already have to pay for tuition, books and everything else. Sometimes they have to choose between school supplies and food, and it shouldn't be that way."
Every item in the Blazer Store costs one Blazer Buck, but shoppers can get three food items, such as canned goods or ramen bowls, for a Buck. Students who donate to the store get one Blazer Buck per item they give, and they can use those Bucks anywhere in the store.
Mmesoma Okafor, a biology student at North Lake who hopes to go to medical school, said she goes to the Blazer Store to "give and take."
"I have a lot of stuff that I just don't need, so I bring stuff, drop it off," she explained. "And sometimes I get new stuff – not new, but different. It's new to me. It's better than going to a store and spending $50 for something new. I just come here, spend two Bucks and get everything I need."
Ceart said she knows a woman who lives in the area and who volunteers at the store. The woman, Ceart said, can't work full time because she has a handicapped child at home. "This is her only way to get food, clothes, hygiene products and other items. The stuff that nobody thinks of. She comes in and helps me with the store and, in exchange for her help, since she doesn't have much to give, she takes what she needs."
Giving and helping others at DCCCD's colleges and locations is not limited to these stories, or to the holiday season – it's a year-round effort to help others. To find out about opportunities to serve your classmates and community in the New Year
speak with the service learning coordinator at your college.
Also, save the date: Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. Every year students across the DCCCD gather together on Martin Luther King Day to go into Dallas County and serve others. We'd love to have you join us! More details will be shared in the next student email newsletter this January.