Clarification: The original version of this article was unclear. Swipes for the Homeless was an idea that originally developed in 2005, when Jonathan Lee started asking students to donate their leftover dining hall swipes to feed the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. The group was not officially recognized or affiliated with UCLA. During Lee’s last year at UCLA, Bryan Pezeshki expanded the idea and co-founded the current state and school-recognized organization and 501 C3 non-profit of the same name, with Nguyen.
Thach “Tak” Nguyen sat grinning from ear to ear on Thursday as President Barack Obama spoke to his left, addressing a White House audience of eager college students.
Nguyen, co-founder and chief financial officer of Swipes for the Homeless at UCLA, traveled to Washington, D.C., with several other members of the student organization to be honored at the White House as one of the winners of a competition called “Campus Champions of Change Challenge.”
The competition, announced last fall, was designed to reward five campus projects across the nation that best embodied the president’s goal to “win the future.”
The submitted campus projects were narrowed down to 15 finalists.
The public then voted online for five winners from different colleges across the country.
Swipes for the Homeless received 25,376 votes, enough to win a trip to Washington, D.C., to receive recognition for its award in the White House.
The UCLA organization distributes food to people living in homeless shelters and on the streets all over Los Angeles, using donated swipes from students’ respective meal plans.
“The concept of taking food and giving it to the homeless is not a revolutionary idea. … The innovative aspect of the program was looking into this untapped resource on campus,” Nguyen said during a panel discussion at the White House event.
Swipes for the Homeless was an idea that originally developed in 2005, when Jonathan Lee, who was then a first-year political science student, started asking students to donate their leftover dining hall swipes to feed the homeless.
Lee and other volunteers would personally deliver and distribute the food to the homeless community in Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, but the group was not officially recognized or affiliated with UCLA.
During Lee’s last year at UCLA in 2009, Bryan Pezeshki, then a first-year student, took the expansion of the club into his own hands. After consulting with Lee, he expanded the idea and co-founded the current state and school-recognized organization and 501 C3 non-profit of the same name, with Nguyen.
Nguyen was visibly ecstatic when the president walked out to address the winners and audience of about 50 to 60 people. Organizers of the event had been unsure whether Obama would be able to make it.
“Good government policy will only go so far,” Obama told the audience.
“What really makes a difference is the entrepreneurship, the day-to-day action, the social networks; it all comes down to people like you who have the courage to and are willing to do these things.”
Nguyen said his cheeks soon hurt from smiling so hard ““ he was stunned to be near an important national figure, he added.
He still had to keep his composure, however, as various speakers asked questions and advice from the five winners about how students could get involved or form their own organizations.
The connections the students made with members of the other winning groups, which ranged in focus from community micro-loaning to sustainability, are expected to be beneficial for the organization, Pezeshki said.
National recognition has also boosted the group’s visibility, and other college campuses have expressed interest in launching similar programs, Pezeshki, now a fourth-year neuroscience student, said.
“This recognition has helped us a lot in getting the word out, and a lot of people have contacted us about getting involved,” he said.
Nguyen said the organization owes much of its success to its partnerships within the UCLA community, namely the Office of Residential Life and UCLA Dining Services.
UCLA Dining Services and ORL provide all of the food for the organization through the donated swipes, so without their cooperation, the entire operation would not be possible, Nguyen said.
The organization meets with ORL and UCLA Dining Services every quarter to work out details such as the amount, date and location of the food donated to the organization.
Since it was founded, Nguyen said the organization has donated about 30,000 pounds of food to the L.A. homeless community.
In addition to distributing food to the homeless population of Los Angeles, the organization devotes many of its resources to the UCLA Food Closet, which provides food to students who may not have the resources to get it on their own, said Jamie Yao, the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Community Service commissioner and a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student.
Swipes for the Homeless currently has 10 chapters at various schools, and members of the organization hope to open more chapters soon, Pezeshki said.
In addition to being honored at the White House event, Swipes for the Homeless will host the mtvU program “The Dean’s List” with the four other winners from the Campus Champions of Change Challenge. The show has already been filmed and will come out within the next few weeks, Nguyen said.
USAC rarely collaborates directly with the organization, but members of the student government helped to spread the word about the challenge and garner votes for the online voting portion through social networking sites, Yao said.
Although it was ultimately the public’s votes that allowed Swipes for the Homeless to win, Nguyen said he believes that what stood out to the organizers of the challenge about their organization was the way it tackles hunger and homelessness “pragmatically.”
“It is really easy for students to give back,” Nguyen said. “They don’t feel like they’re sacrificing too much while at the same time they’re doing a really great deed.”