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Campus Elves Roll Up Sleeves to Help Needy

Ioana Patringenaru | Dec. 6, 2010

They’re helping sort toys for toy drives. They’re visiting the needy with presents and holiday dinners. They’re collecting donations for children who will be spending the holidays in the hospital this year.

It’s the season of giving and members of the UC San Diego community, from staff, to students, to alumni, are rolling up their sleeves to help the needy and the sick during the holidays. With unemployment on the rise, help is especially needed this year, volunteers said.

Many of this year’s charitable efforts are channeled through Volunteer50. A key component of the university’s 50th Anniversary celebration, the initiative encourages the entire campus community, including all students, faculty, staff, alumni and university friends, to perform at least 50 hours of volunteer service during the 2010-11 academic year.

Helping the needy

Children at the Mesa Child Development Center take part in an art project set up through Volunteer50.

The spirit of volunteerism is certainly alive in members of UCSD’s Alpha Phi Omega, a coed fraternity dedicated to community service and leadership. This holiday season, students are staging “Operation Santa” to help 55 families in need all over the county.

The effort as been around for about five years, and has provided its share of heart-wrenching moments. Last year, the organization put on a Christmas celebration for a woman with terminal cancer and her family—on Thanksgiving Day. Family members weren’t sure the woman would make it until Christmas.

Many of the families the fraternity helps are led by single mothers. Some have fled domestic violence. Some face illness or the loss of a family member. Others are simply struggling to make ends meet. One mother told the students she couldn’t even afford to buy chicken nuggets for her children, recalled Angela Lee, a third-year psychology major from Marshall College, and one of the co-chairs of Operation Santa.

There’s nothing better than walking into a home and seeing all the children get excited because you’re bringing them Christmas, said Tiffany Tsiou, a fourth-year linguistics major at Muir and another co-chair.

Operation Santa is a yearly reminder of how fortunate students are, Lee said. They’re able to eat out, drink coffee, buy iPods and TVs, while some families need to think about every single purchase they make, she said.

“I just want to give back however I can,” Lee said.

To find the families, Alpha Phi Omega promoted Operation Santa on two local TV stations, NBC 7/39 and San Diego 6, and two local radio stations, STAR 94.1 and Rock 105.3, in addition to posting fliers at various locations throughout the county. Perhaps because of the economic crisis, they received a record number of nominations this year.

Raising funds

Two children pose with the stuffed animals they received through Operation Santa last year.

Related links:
To find an opportunity to give this holiday season, go to these links: Volunteer50
The UCSD Staff Association Holiday Pancake Breakfast (toy drive and clothes drive) E-mail Operation Santa at

To raise money for gifts and food for all 55 families, the fraternity runs fundraisers, including working concessions at Qualcomm Stadium and wrapping gifts at Barnes & Noble. A share of fraternity fees also is set aside for Operation Santa. This year, for the first time, the organization also has partnered with other UCSD groups, including the Pre-Medical Association of Students for Service, Alpha Kappa Psi, Women and Children Care Initiative, Health and Medical Professions Preparation Program, American Medical Student Association and resident advisors from Eleanor Roosevelt College. But donations are still needed.

The students’ enthusiasm has inspired other organizations and businesses. Coghlan Financial Group, Inc., a group of financial advisors, is planning to donate Christmas dinners for nine families. Radio station STAR 94.1 FM’s morning show is set to buy and deliver Christmas gifts to a family.

“It’s just the most rewarding experience,” said Michelle Lin, a third-year communications and computing arts double major from Sixth College, and another Operation Santa co-chair.


Meanwhile, this holiday season, Volunteer50 is promoting events centered around children. This past weekend, volunteers pitched in to set up the 49th Starlight Parade organized by the South Bay Family YMCA in Chula Vista. On Dec. 11, Toys for Tots is looking for volunteers to help Marines sort out new, unwrapped toys that will go to children in need.

Volunteer50 also is partnering with Junior Achievement, an organization dedicated to teaching economics and finances to children in kindergarten through 12th grade.  The organization is looking for volunteers to work for half a day in local schools, starting after the New Year.

Students from Alpha Phi Omega pose with a family they helped last year.

So far, 1305 registered volunteers have logged 8,165 hours on the Volunteer50 website, said Pepper Lane, co-chair of the Volunteer50 committee and a staff member at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. The ultimate goal is to reach 50,000 hours, she added.

To get to that milestone, Volunteer50 organizers are promoting some healthy competition among the campus’ six colleges. So far, Eleanor Roosevelt is in the lead, with 1,712 hours, followed by Revelle, Muir, Warrren, Marshall and Sixth College.  “We know they’re doing the work,” Lane said. “They’re just not coming back to log it.”

Inspiration and rewards

Volunteer50 events are inspiring and educational, said Kim Newin, the group’s other co-chair, who works in the Chancellor’s Office. For example, after Lane’s teenage son helped fill backpacks with donations for children at the San Diego Food Bank last month, he talked to his teachers about promoting giving at his school. He’s set to give a presentation to students to encourage them to volunteer.

Volunteer50 highlights partner organizations and specific events, but members of the UCSD community can log in hours for any activities they take part in, Lane said. The goal is to showcase the volunteerism spirit of the UCSD community, Newin said.

“You’re part of the UCSD family,” she said. “It’s not just the campus in La Jolla or the medical center in Hillcrest. This program demonstrates our impact on the community as a whole.”

How to help

A chalk quilt made by children at the Mesa Child Development Center during a Volunteer50 event.

If you’re looking to give your time, or make donations, there are plenty of opportunities available between now and the end of the year. Go to Volunteer50 and register to see all the initiative’s events and to track your hours.

Operation Santa is still looking for donations, both of money and of gifts. For more information, e-mail

Also, the Staff Association’s annual toy drive benefits children at the UCSD burn center, infant care center, mother, child and adolescent center, as well as the Bannister Family House. Drop off a new, unwrapped toy at several locations on campus by Dec. 15, or bring your donation to the Annual Holiday Pancake Breakfast.

Also at the pancake breakfast, the Veterans Association is collecting gently used clothing for the Veterans Village of San Diego. Jackets are especially welcome this time of the year. Business clothes for female veterans also are badly needed.

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