On Monday, Dec. 14, Kenyon Lee Whitman pulled a foldable blue wagon across the Bannockburn Village parking lot. The cart was filled with holiday care packages wrapped in green cellophane.
He walked to Bannockburn’s Resident Services Office to drop off a dozen gift packages for former foster youth students now studying at UC Riverside — the small gifts will be opened during Friday’s Zoom Holiday Party.
The Zoom event will fall short of the annual festive gathering hosted by the Guardian Scholars Program, the office that among other services, supports students as they transition from foster care to and through college by providing access to year-round on-campus housing, mentoring, tutoring, school supplies, and social activities.
“Despite COVID, we want students to know that we are here for them,” said Whitman, program director for the Office of Foster Youth Support Services, which oversees Guardian Scholars.
All 34 Guardian Scholars will receive a holiday care package, some by mail, others by simply picking them up from the Bannockburn, Glen Mor, or Pentland Hills resident services offices.
Previous winter celebrations included formal sit-down dinners with linen-draped tables, holiday centerpieces, festive music, gift baskets, a white elephant game, and children running around.
COVID-19 might have altered the plan this year, but the staff and the program’s avid supporters still wanted to make sure students received a little holiday cheer. Help creating the gift baskets came from Nancy and Ken Noller, a husband-and-wife team who have been involved for years. Ken received his bachelor’s degree from UCR in 1975, a teaching credential in 1976, and a master’s in 1984.
The Nollers, both retired school teachers, lead the effort every year, coordinating with a group of long-time supporters of Guardian Scholars who pitch in to purchase the items.
Support for this program runs deep. On Giving Tuesday, Dec. 1, the Guardian Scholars program raced to the top in donations and total number of donors, finishing the day with more than $53,000 donated by 360 individuals; the money raised goes toward the Guardian Scholars endowment.
“The endowment ensures that foster youth support services at UC Riverside persist beyond our lifetimes so that all foster youth have a place to call their own and a community that uplifts them,” Whitman said.
On Dec. 14, several students stopped by the Resident Services Offices at Bannockburn to pick up their holiday surprise, including Belen Curiel, 25, a sociology major who transferred to UCR in the fall.
“It’s nice to know that there’s a support system here,” said Curiel, as she thanked Whitman for the present. Each holiday care package includes a mug, a scarf, gift cards for Amazon and local grocery stores, as well as sweet treats.
Ricardo Palacios, 23, also stopped by to pick up his gift, noting he’ll open it during the Zoom party on Friday with the rest of the students.
“Christmas will be very different this year,” said Palacios, a business administration major. “But I’m very thankful, still. It’s still nice to be connected with you all.”
Palacios directed his appreciation toward Whitman, whom he said was crucial in helping him find a sense of belonging at UCR, as well as navigating his transfer from Fullerton College two years ago.
Jennifer Guerra, 26, started at UCR this fall and is now living in family housing with her two children, Norberto Jimenez, 2, and Breanna Guerra, 11. Her son’s father has also joined them in this new journey.
Months before transferring to UCR, Whitman was on the phone with Guerra, guiding her and answering questions.
“I had no idea what I was doing; I had never transferred; I had never applied to family housing,” said Guerra, who plans to become a neurosurgeon in the future. “Everything was new and Kenyon was there, guiding me through everything.”
This is the first time Guerra will celebrate the holidays in her own apartment. When she picked up the Guardian Scholars holiday gift, she showed it to Norberto, who smiled.
“Despite COVID, I’m still grateful,” Guerra said. “We’re still healthy and we’re still connected somehow.”