Helping hands

Students Carolina Vaquerano and Clarissa Arnaudo (left to right)
Students Carolina Vaquerano and Clarissa Arnaudo (left to right) plant native sycamore trees at Fort Ord National Monument as part of a spring break service trip to Monterey County. Courtesy Photo

Student volunteers serve the community in Monterey County

A group of dedicated CA&ES students spent their spring break helping others and learning about community challenges in Monterey County. Sponsored by the CA&ES Dean’s Office, the weeklong trip included serving meals to the homeless, planting trees as part of a native plant restoration project and pulling weeds on an organic farm.

“In college, we’re so swamped with difficult classes like chemistry and biology and finding internships or jobs that it can be hard to find time to volunteer,” said Sarah Risher, a senior majoring in environmental policy analysis and planning who was one of 11 students on the March trip. “I felt like this was an amazing opportunity provided by the college. It was great to be with other students who are curious and passionate about making a difference.”

Corrine Hawes, student leadership program coordinator for the Dean’s Office, initiated the community service trip during spring break to provide civic-minded students with opportunities to help others. Hawes also hoped students would gain a better understanding of the links between agriculture, the environment and human sciences—the three academic divisions in the college.

Volunteers with a wide range of academic interests

Back in the fall of 2017, Hawes recruited two student coordinators, who helped organize the trip and find community groups that needed volunteers. About 40 students applied to participate in the experience. Those selected represented a wide range of majors and backgrounds. The student participants attended weekly planning and team-building meetings during winter quarter to prepare for the trip.

Adela Contreras, a sophomore majoring in environmental science and management, served as one of the student coordinators. Contreras and fellow organizers arranged for the group to plant native sycamore trees at Fort Ord National Monument to help “Return of the Natives,” a nonprofit group affiliated with Cal State University Monterey Bay that does habitat restoration. Originally from Salinas, Contreras previously volunteered with the same group while she was in secondary school.

“I was impressed by the enthusiasm the people in our group had for the activities, even when they were doing jobs like weeding or packing food,” said Contreras. “It was a very dedicated group.” The students stayed at a hostel in Monterey, cooked meals together and gathered in the evening to discuss what they had seen and done during the day.

Risher, who has a keen interest in climate change and environmental policy, said the experience gave her a greater understanding of agriculture and the tremendous amount of labor that goes into producing food organically. She enjoyed hearing the personal stories shared by individuals at Green Thumb Organics Farms and at the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association. 

Risher is originally from Sacramento. As a teenager she volunteered at Loaves and Fishes, which provides food and shelter for the homeless. In Salinas, she and the other CA&ES students volunteered preparing a meal and serving food at Dorothy’s Place, which helps the homeless.

“It was very humbling to see so many people in need of food and assistance, and how much mental illness there was among those using the services,” said Risher. “I’m interested in policy, and I could see potentially exploring this area for my future career.”

In addition to learning more about food insecurity, homelessness, sustainable housing and poverty in Monterey County, the CA&ES students formed new friendships. “Our group really clicked,” said Contreras. “I was fortunate to get to know enthusiastic and committed students with interests similar to mine.”