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White House Recognizes Students for Feeding the Homeless—One Meal Swipe at a Time

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Tak Nguyen and Bryan Pezeshki, co-founders of the non-profit “Swipes for the Homeless,” at the White House Campus Champions of Change event.

CREDIT: Swipes for the Homeless / Arianne Testa

Thach “Tak” Nguyen and Bryan Pezeshki, both students at the University of California-Los Angeles, were inspired when they saw classmates donate their meals to homeless people around campus.

So, the two jumped into action and started Swipes for the Homeless, a new student organization they founded at UCLA last year. Swipes, as they affectionately call it, became an opportunity for students to give their leftover meal swipes to various homeless shelters in or around Westwood, Calif., where UCLA is located.

After Nguyen graduated last year, the group became a non-profit organization and has since expanded to ten other schools across the country and boasts four people on its national staff and hundreds of involved students.

It’s this success that propelled them to the top of a recent White House competition to honor young Americans doing great work on college campuses nationwide. Part of the Obama administration’s Champions of Change program, Nguyen and four other student leaders were recently honored by President Obama. (Campus Progress spoke with several of these students and will be sharing their stories over the next week.)

Pezeshki, the CEO of “Swipes” and Nguyen, the CFO, have only kept building: Last quarter, they collected more than 7,000 meal swipes at UCLA and recently received their non-profit 501c3 status.

Looking back at the group’s start, Pezeshki noted how empowering it was to receive so much support from their university—from getting advice from staff and university officials to the students they have worked with over the past two years.

For Nguyen, a key part of Swipes’ success comes from previous leadership experience in which he learned how to both engage students and hold them accountable, as well as how to manage working with students who have varying levels of experience.

Pezeshki said the biggest lesson he’s learned in starting “Swipes” was the importance of perseverance, realizing what it meant to work on homelessness and hunger issues, and seeing how people can form partnerships to create positive results. For Nguyen, it has been a great example of how one person can have a small idea and expand it, by rallying people around a cause to move forward.

One of the most powerful images of their work, the two said, comes from their first drive to the homeless shelters.

Pezeshki was packing up the food from the campus dining hall when one of the staff approached him about his project. After explaining what he was doing and where the food was going, the woman started to cry. She had just lost her home after not being able to afford the rent, she explained, and was staying at one of the shelters he was going to that night.

The duo had a few suggestions for young Americans looking to make a difference in their communities.

First Pezeshki said it’s important to “always keep an open mind” because you never know where a project might go. And, he said, it’s important not to limit yourself, but instead take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Nguyen’s advice echoes his sentiments about how they achieved success with “Swipes,” emphasizing the importance of “getting other people behind you.” Nguyen noted how young Americans can’t do such things alone—no matter how great the idea is—so you can be a leader who inspires others to take up the cause with you.

While the duo said they sincerely appreciated the White House’s recognition of their efforts, they’re doing their best not to let Nguyen’s status as a Champion of Change alter the way they run their organization. If anything, they said, it’s helping them increase their efforts and work harder

Nguyen said meeting President Obama has been one of the most rewarding experiences as a part of Swipes. But he wasn’t “basking in recognition” during the ceremony, he said. Instead, he was already thinking about how he could do more to feel truly deserving of the honor.

Nguyen and Pezeshki say they continue to see their efforts as simply volunteering—their way of giving back to the community—rather than as “work,” and they plan to stay with and build the project for a long time.

Jeff Raines is a journalism intern with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Raines.

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