Good Things are Bruin: Four stories of community support amid COVID-19 restrictions
Paul Kurek, a Germanic languages graduate student, said he tries to help out the community by donating still-useful items students that have been discarded in North Westwood Village. (MacKenzie Coffman/Daily Bruin senior staff)
May 1, 2020 9:43 p.m.
Some Bruins have made efforts to give back to their communities despite social restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. This series of articles, each made of several short stories, aims to remind us “Good Things are Bruin” and provide some hopeful news during a difficult time. If you or anyone you know is helping their community, please let us know with this form and we may feature your story in the next installment.
Treasuring another’s trash
When UCLA canceled in-person classes, Paul Kurek noticed that students moving out of North Westwood Village left behind still-useful furniture and clothes. Rather than let these items go to waste, he decided to repurpose them.
“It’s sad to see all of these things being thrown out when so many people need (these) things,” said Kurek, a Germanic languages graduate student. “I thought this is something (I) could do in a spatially very limited area.”
Kurek collects clothes, shoes, toys and other discarded items while walking through his neighborhood. He then cleans them in his home, and places them in a donation box outside the graduate student housing in Weyburn Terrace, he said. He also incorporates other items like paintings and furniture into his own apartment.
“I found a painting of a wave … and a lot of frames that I use to reframe other things,” Kurek said. “It felt good to take things others have left behind and recycle them, and it’s recreational to clean (those items) and rearrange my apartment.”
On one of his walks, Kurek came across a metal suitcase near his apartment. He brought it to his apartment and opened it with a screwdriver to discover a rare West German artifact— a functional 1957 Olympia typewriter.
“I was born around the time when the Berlin Wall fell, so it’s a piece of history that’s connected to my own life, and I found it next to a blue bin in Westwood Village,” Kurek said. “It actually works, but I use it as a decorative piece.”
Changing his apartment’s aesthetic helps improve his mental well-being as he spends more time confined to the area during the lockdown, Kurek added.
“It’s a good distraction that has a small impact and keeps up the spirits,” Kurek said. “It has an ecological impact on a very, very small scale, but that’s what we can do at this time.”
Direct to order
With local restaurants struggling amid social restrictions, one Westwood resident is going out of his way to directly support them.
Garrett Higginbotham, a UCLA alumnus, said he wanted to support struggling local restaurants, such as The Lime Truck and Cava, to stave off closures like what befell Stan’s Donuts.
“(These restaurants) relied on (more than) 40,000 students to be in the community buying food and groceries,” Higginbotham said. “The volume isn’t there as much, so I’ve been committing myself to ordering take-out food two to three times a day and going to Westwood to pick it up just to help support a lot of local (establishments).”
Higginbotham personally picks up his orders instead of using delivery services such as Grubhub and Postmates, which take cuts from the restaurants’ revenues, to ensure all of his purchases support the stores directly, he said.
“I’m making an effort to call these stores directly and placing my order that way,” Higginbotham said. “I think a lot of these bigger companies have the cash at the port for the time being, but it really is the mom-and-pop shops that can’t handle it.”
Higginbotham said he appreciated how the Westwood community and its businesses influenced his experiences at UCLA over the past four years and wanted to help preserve these businesses for future students.
“Just being able to walk into Westwood and see all these thriving businesses is what made my college experience special and really important to me,” Higginbotham said. “So it only feels right to give back in a time of need to help make sure for Bruins in years and years to come to have the same experience I did.”
Serving out soup
Stuck in Westwood, one student decided to volunteer at a soup kitchen in need.
Sheel Shah, a third-year human biology and society student, spoke with friends in the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine to brainstorm helpful steps he could take to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
“I decided, since I’m already here (in Westwood) and I’m pretty alone because my roommate moved out, I’d contribute in any way I can to both the Westwood and LA communities,” Shah said.
After hearing from a friend about the need for volunteers at the Hollywood Food Coalition, Shah decided to volunteer for six to seven hours on Saturdays with the HFC, he said. The HFC cooks meals daily and provides assistance for vulnerable community members.
“In that time, I would make food, train volunteers who are new to the Hollywood Food Coalition, and also serve the food we make to residents who line up outside,” Shah said.
Food donations from local retailers determine the specifics of meals prepared every day, but the general menu includes a salad, a hot meal that includes meat and vegetarian options, and a dessert, Shah said. Any leftover meals are kept in a refrigerator for distribution the next day to avoid wasting donations, he added.
While there are inherent risks with any social interaction, Shah said he believes the impact their work has on the lives of the residents outweighs those risks.
“It’s very visible that they would not eat that night if we weren’t able to cook the food for them,” Shah said. “Seeing the impact you’re making on people who need these essential services is why I’m willing to volunteer my time and take that risk.”
Granting a new purpose
A local neighborhood council repurposed their canceled event funds to best serve those experiencing homelessness amid the pandemic.
Michael Skiles, North Westwood Neighborhood Council president and a UCLA alumnus, said the lockdown eliminated multiple events designed to aid community members experiencing homelessness. Rather than let those funds sit idle, Skiles redirected the funds to better serve vulnerable community members.
“When you’re experiencing homelessness, everyone else is able to shelter at home, but you can’t do that when you don’t have a home,” Skiles said. “You’re also not able to stock up on things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and food.”
The council’s Homelessness Committee purchased one thousand dollar’s worth of food, water and hygiene products from Ralphs for those living in Westwood Park. The NWWNC also allocated $1,000 to the Westwood Village Improvement Association’s efforts to distribute hygiene and food kits to people experiencing homelessness in the Village, Skiles said. He added that the NWWNC donated $1,000 to the UCLA Community Programs Office Food Closet and another $1,000 to provide resources to help the homeless temporarily sheltered in the recreation center.
Skiles said he focused the council’s funding on helping those experiencing homelessness because he felt that would be the best way to maximize the impact of the allocated money.
“I felt that in partnering with these organizations, who were already on the ground and had a game plan, they could make this money go far and do a lot of good for people,” Skiles said. “Ten dollars with some of the organizations would provide food, water and hygiene care for a person that could make that person better off for days.”