Campus, News

CalFresh coordinator uses personal experiences to lead program

At 23 years old, Vivian Hernandez was homeless, sleeping on the folded backseat of her Mazda CX-7 with her dog. She parked overnight in residential areas as she continued to pursue her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Long Beach State.

During this time, she sought out CSULB’s Basic Needs program, which provided Hernandez with meals card to eat at the campus dining halls.

Now, Hernandez is CalFresh outreach coordinator at CSULB, using the program’s new office at the University Student Union, and her experiences, to help students feel comfortable enough to ask for help when in need.

“We don’t want students just surviving, we also want them to be thriving,” Hernandez said. “I know because at one point I was surviving on a couple of meals a day. Now I’m thriving due to our amazing services and department.”

As the daughter of Mexican migrants, Hernandez was looked at by her immediate family as someone who was capable of going out into the world and surviving.

“They would constantly see me as someone who was able to figure things out, so they thought I knew how to figure out the education system,” Hernandez said. “But I didn’t, I had no one, so I relied on the campus resources.”

While at CSULB, Hernandez said she built a “university family” by making connections with students and administrators on campus through programs such as TRiO Student Support Services and the National Undergraduate Fellowship Program.

“The connection and validation were so important and necessary for me to feel like I could keep going,” she said. “Once my basic needs were met and everyone started to see my potential, I felt like I could be here on this campus and really be present.”

After Hernandez’s positive experience with the Basic Needs program, she wanted to help other CSULB students who were facing food and housing insecurity.

That’s when Carol Menard, the coordinator of the Student Emergency Intervention and Wellness Program, encouraged Hernandez to volunteer with CalFresh by handing out flyers at CalFresh Outreach Week.

“I saw how [Vivian] helped others access services to make a difference in their situation and stay enrolled at CSULB,” Menard said. “Since volunteering for CalFresh, Vivian was a perfect match for the Basic Needs program staff member position because of her dedication and motivational skills.”

After Hernandez graduated in May 2019 with her bachelor’s in sociology, she applied to the nutrition assistance program and was then hired as the CalFresh outreach assistant coordinator.

“I hit the ground running as soon as I got here,” Hernandez said. “I was like a sponge, I wanted to know everything.”

In September 2020, Hernandez was promoted to a full-time position as the CalFresh outreach coordinator where responsibilities included checking in with students in the program, managing the program’s budget and following up with students who submitted applications online.

“Vivian is a change agent in students’ lives by helping them access meal plans, housing, grants and other services,” Menard said. “She also motivated them by planning long-term success goals to graduate.”

One of Hernandez’s proudest achievements was helping CalFresh get a larger office space in the University Student Union (USU), which she had been advocating for since she first volunteered with the program in 2016.

“The office space at the time was very small, there was no door and it was really difficult for students who wanted to come to talk to me,” Hernandez said. “It wasn’t a setup where you could feel comfortable or speak confidentially.”

With the support of CalFresh’s assistant director at the time, Christina Yokoyama, Hernandez campaigned to increase the CalFresh budget from $100,000 to $500,000 in order to be able to move into the new office during summer 2021.

Now, Hernandez is focused on promoting the Basic Needs program’s services by planning a cooking demonstration and a wellness day with hammocks in front of the USU lawn to gain students’ attention.

Kenneth Kelly, director of the Basic Needs program, said Hernandez’s “energy and organization skills have contributed to the program’s success.”

With Hernandez’s help, the Basic Needs program reached its goal of having over 2,000 applications filled out during the 2020 to 2021 school year.

“Statistically, she’s blowing it out of the water,” Kelly said. “She’s just getting started, and I plan to keep supporting her by letting her do her thing.

In the past, the highest number of applications received by the program was about 700.

In the future, Hernandez said she hopes to obtain an even bigger space to support every CSULB student’s needs and make a difference in their lives.

“I want students to know they’re not alone, and to not be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “There are caring people here for you.”

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