Dr. Cakmak how long have you been with MCC?
Almost two years, since July 2018.
What motivated you to get involved in fundraising for the MCC Cares Food Pantry?
I have been involved in nonprofit work for many years. I work directly with three nonprofit organizations in areas such as event planning and fundraising. I serve on the board of a school in South Jersey, and I also represent a Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations, where one of my responsibilities is to raise awareness of the issues and help achieve sustainable goals. Zero Hunger is Sustainable Development Goal number 2. It used to be called Eradicating Poverty and Hunger, now it is Zero Hunger, as there is no reason for people to starve. We have enough food and resources to feed us all, we just need to learn to share.
I grew up in Turkey where income disparity and poverty is a major issue. For most of us, helping each other is a way of life. Food is particularly important to us. We always share. When the COVID-19 crisis hit MCC, we lost contact with a large number of our students. As soon as we could, we started outreach efforts. Emails started to pour in explaining why some students were not in the virtual classroom. One said he had been living in his car before COVID, doing his schoolwork in the labs, and getting his daily necessities from our pantry; he never had to reveal this to anyone. He asked, “What am I going to do now? How can I continue?” The other one said she had a little food left that she got from the pantry before Spring Break. Her health issues required a healthy diet but she didn’t know what to do once the last packet of rice ran out, much less how to eat healthy. She said if she died no one would know. Knowing my students are hungry, I couldn’t eat all weekend. Normally, when I receive an email from a student, I respond “I am working on it, I will be in touch.” I realized that I could not tell my students that I was working on it, without actually working on it. So I said, “Aslihan, get to it!” So I grabbed my phone and reached out to my inner circle of friends. We also had some money collected with my faculty to honor one of our faculty members who passed away in January. We planned to start a scholarship. I asked those who contributed if we could donate this money to our food pantry and they said “gladly!” so, that’s how we easily reached the first $1,000. After that, my friends asked their friends, their friends asked their friends, and money keeps coming in. I am so happy that I do not recognize the names on the list anymore as our message must have been spread around.
Why does this cause matter to you? Why now in particular?
If not me, then who? If not now, then when? This has been my motto in life. Being an immigrant allows me to see things from a different perspective. Coming to a country where I did not know a living soul, I could not depend on anyone. Even if I wanted to ask for help, I did not have anyone to ask. I guess emails from my students and particularly those two students hit home, so to speak. MCC students have this opportunity, they have a place to go when they need food or other necessities. It is our responsibility to keep it running. It is more important now because we are not on campus and what is not in front of us might be forgotten. When we are on campus, we remember to bring donations and drop them into the bins, because they are in front of us – we are in the habit of it. Now the reminders are not there to inspire us. That’s why I wanted to do this. Now, we need people to donate, and to remember to donate.
Did you notice food insecurity with your students prior to COVID-19?
Last year, when I was a new employee, it might have been my first month or two on the job, I hosted an event where we had a lot of untouched leftover food. I asked our students at the labs to come and get some food. While they were helping themselves, I heard a student say to the other, “Today, I had less than a dollar in my pocket, I did not know what to do. I am so hungry, but now this! I am so grateful!” So, the answer is yes.
I always keep snacks (granola bars, cereal, chocolate, candy) and water in my office. I leave them out in the open for people to take. I started this as a “thank you” to our people who come to my office to do any work from changing a bulb to taking out the trash. I leave a note: “Please, help yourselves.” However, this academic year, I read a survey that revealed 13 percent of community college students are homeless. I shared this with my faculty and staff at our department meeting. Some of us decided to keep large bowls of snacks in our offices so that our students can have something to eat if they need it.
I try to do whatever I can… My mom is a great baker. She bakes and I bring it to school and send it to the labs so that our student workers have something to eat that day. In our office, we always have food and water for anyone who needs it.
What message would you share with others regarding supporting the MCC Cares Food Pantry?
I believe every one of us associated with MCC is an extension of the College to the outside world. Carry the message with you, be the spokesperson. Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, be their advocate. It is the hardest thing to do to say to a stranger “I am hungry, please help.” This should not even be an issue in this day and age, but it still is. Do not question why they are in that situation, they just are. Do not ask when this will end, or how long we will have to do it. We don’t know but we will keep doing it until we don’t need to. Knowing that we have thousands of dollars in the account now and we can help people who need it makes me sleep at night. I don’t think twice or feel guilty when I feed my daughter.
We might not achieve a lot in life, we might not find a solution to every problem that humanity faces, but hunger is fixable. It is the easiest thing that we can personally help eradicate. If we share only a little bit of what we have, we will be able to feed a lot of people.