CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Like many college students, Jenny Deview was relieved when the fall semester was over. But for her, classes ending didn’t mean going home to family for Thanksgiving and a relaxing winter break at home.
Instead, she’ll be picking up extra shifts at her job to help pay rent in Chapel Hill and relying on kind strangers for healthy, home-cooked meals.
“I’m adulting in my own way, and at times it’s really horrible worrying about expenses and time,” said Deview, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Deview, 21, is one of hundreds of students staying on campus or in town over winter break this year. The coronavirus pandemic has made some students more vulnerable financially, while others don’t want to go home and risk infecting their family and friends.
Deview didn’t see family in North Carolina over Thanksgiving and won’t be going home over winter break to her small town south of Miami. Her mom, who has asthma and works for a landscaping company, can’t afford to get sick.
As a Carolina Covenant Scholar, Deview’s books, tuition and some housing are covered by her scholarship. The financial aid program is for students whose family has a total income that is at or below 200% of the poverty guideline.
Deview buys groceries at Food Lion using her EBT card, but struggles to make good meals because that food can be expensive, she said. And while she has more time without classes, she’s filling it with more hours at PetSmart. Deview started there shortly after losing her campus job doing research in the archaeology lab because of the financial strain of the pandemic and UNC limiting campus operations, she said.
This year, winter break is about eight weeks because of the condensed fall semester and a later start date in the spring. That means students will have to wait longer to get their scholarship money or financial aid checks. It’s another one of the reasons Deview knows she’ll need to work more.
Her saving grace over the break is a free meal program started by a group of local “super moms and parents.”
The Chapel Hill & Carrboro Mothers Club raised more than $10,000 to put together packages of four hearty meals each week for 7 weeks for about two dozen UNC students.
The program was targeted to students who are struggling financially and staying in a residence hall or off campus over winter break through to the spring semester. They’ll meet the students who signed up every week on campus to hand out the assortment of free meals cooked by Vimala Rajendran at her restaurant Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.
“I’m glad I have one less night to worry about,” Deview said. “I’m pretty good about eating leftovers, and I’m not too picky.”
She’s looking forward to Vimala’s meals over her go-to macaroni and cheese with tuna, which she grew up eating.
“My mom kind of tried to teach me different recipes to cook,” Deview said. “Just stuff you can make in bulk … that’s not healthy, but at least you’re fed.”
FEWER STUDENTS GOING HOME OVER WINTER BREAK
Amy Johnson, UNC’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said it’s particularly important this year to keep their campus services open for students for the bulk of the longer winter break.
UNC typically has fewer than 200 students staying in residence halls over winter break, but this year that number is over 300. That includes students with financial hardships, athletes and international students.
Those students and others staying in the area will be able to access the campus health center, counseling services through CAPS, UNC libraries, rec centers and dining facilities, though the hours may be limited. Students can get after hours health services through the Health Link and CAPS 24-7 even when Campus Health and CAPS are closed.
The university is also offering COVID-19 testing at the Student Union on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. through Dec. 23. Johnson said they are also finding ways to keep students connected in-person and virtually through programs with the LGBTQ center and Healthy Heels Ambassadors.
Samuel Garzon, 21, transferred to UNC from a community college near Charlotte, where he lived with his grandmother. Garzon is from Colombia and his grandmother is his only family living in the United States.
He’s staying in Chapel Hill over the break because he doesn’t want to risk getting his grandmother sick or get stuck in Colombia as the pandemic worsens.
His roommates have gone home for the holidays and he’ll be the only one living in his house until the spring semester. But he’s looking forward to the quiet, applying to summer internships, utilizing campus facilities and catching up on projects he never got around to.
He’s also thankful to have local moms to organize care packages and meals for students who are alone over break.
“I think there’s this huge number of people like me … whose families are so far away and we just are kind of on our own,” Garzon said. “It’s always nice having groups that care and see students as individuals.”
‘NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO GO HUNGRY’
Pseudo-moms in Chapel Hill have been stepping up throughout the semester.
“There’s definitely a desire to help with the local community, and it’s hard to find ways to do it now,” said Lynne Privette, a member of the mothers club who has a freshman daughter at UNC.
She wants students who don’t have family locally to know that this group of parents will step in and support them, she said.
The group, which has more than 7,000 members on Facebook, started with a care package drive this fall and gave about 50 students things to make this stressful semester a bit more comfortable. Packages included handwritten notes, ramen, tea, a deck of cards, toiletries, cozy socks, hand-made rice socks for aches and pains and other household essentials.
After a successful event, the group wanted to do something bigger and came up with this program to help a local restaurant and students by providing free meals over the break, Privette said.
On Tuesday, students went home with a variety of dishes, including Italian baked ziti with Tuscan white bean and kale soup and Moroccan chicken with Egyptian-style lentils and rice.
Rajendran’s business has struggled during the pandemic, but through it she’s been providing free food for people in need in the area, including refugees and front-line workers at hospitals. She’s been writing grants and raising money for these projects, which also help pay her bills and keep her staff working. This program for students also acts as a catering gig.
“Food is a human right, and no one should have to go hungry,” Rajendran said.
Rajendran knows it’s not a complete solution for all of the food security problems. But, now, at least 25 students who don’t have a home or family to go home to will have good meals for a few weeks during the holidays.
“It’s not everything,” Rajendran said, “but it is something.”
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