With all the trimmings: annual Thanksgiving meal is tip of the iceberg when it comes to community support of ASU students

George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving observance in 1789. Abraham Lincoln took it a step further in 1863, issuing a document of recommendation that a “day of thanksgiving” be set aside by “the whole American People.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to a Congressional resolution in 1941 to move the date from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday of that month.

It is Thanksgiving and, at Arizona State University, the day – while special – is like most others at the country’s largest public research university. It is a day when community support of student success shines brightly, providing much-needed aid and even comfort to those seeking success through higher education.

This Thanksgiving, for the seventh year in succession, the popular event is a partnership effort between the Sun Devil Family Association and ASU’s Off-Campus Student Services office. Robin Okun Hengl, an ASU alumnae and for 10 years the director of what is today the SDFA, expects as many as 500 students to line up and sit down for the free feast, which gets underway at 11 a.m. and goes until 1 p.m. OCSS staff, SDFA scholars and parent volunteers will team to provide a traditional dinner with all the trimmings, including leftovers, to students unable to travel home for the holiday.

“The Thanksgiving dinner truly resonates with our students’ parents, as well as the overall community,” says Okun Hengl, whose husband Terry has a pair of degrees from ASU, while daughters Lauren and Dana also graduated as Sun Devils. “SDFA initiatives are designed to increase support for student success and build spirit and pride in the ASU community, so the dinner is not difficult to support or embrace; you need only to think about the students and the help they sometimes need; the support we can provide oftentimes means the difference between succeeding as a collegian and not being successful in that regard.”

The dinner is just one of many services provided students by the SDFA, celebrating its 30th year as a university support organization in 2014. Included in the SDFA portfolio are such offerings as the yearly dinner, free tutoring, Early Start and Finish Line scholarships, grants designed to make life less stressful for students, a crisis fund, Homecoming Reunion, and even “grandfamily” scholarships for students raised by grandparents. Each of the programs relies on private, outside support.

“All that we are able to offer students in support of their ultimate success and the impacts they will one day have on our communities comes from gifts,” says Okun Hengl, who counts some 4,000 donors who generate as much as $375,000 annually to the association. “Private support is critical to the success of our students, helping students achieve and succeed, to stay in school, to graduate, to plan their futures and to make a difference. You can’t do all of that successfully without community support.”

One student who has benefitted from SDFA support is Karla Esquer, a senior at ASU’s West campus who expects to receive her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and also integrative studies in May 2015. She credits the SDFA with keeping her on track and helping “evolve my student-leader career path” as president of the on-campus student Programming and Activities Board.

“I had a lot of potential building for myself, and I managed to bring that all to a halt within seconds after falling off my (skateboard),” she says. “I popped my knee in a direction it was not made to pop, and I was on crutches for the following two months.”

Because of the injury, Esquer was unable to work her part-time job in Scottsdale, leaving her without the funds to afford housing, food, sundries and even the time necessary to complete her nightly studies.

Enter the SDFA Crisis Fund.

“During that time, I could not bring in any money to support myself,” says Esquer. “SDFA brought me the financial stability I need not only for my health, but also for my studies. Because of SDFA, I was able to focus on my schoolwork, and I kept my grades up.”

Esquer is looking forward to the day she can return the favor; what she calls a “win-win situation” to keep the support ball rolling. “Without SDFA, I wouldn’t be president of the Programming and Activities Board, and I’m not so sure I would even still be at ASU; I only hope they continue to do all they are doing to help others in similar situations in the future.”

As SDFA volunteers and administrators prepare for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, the event is special for ASU alumni Angel and Clayton Guy. The Guys, whose daughter-in-law has an ASU degree and whose son is expected to graduate from the university in 2015, have helped serve and encourage those ASU students who are not home for the holiday since the 2011 dinner. In addition to their volunteer service to the event, the couple regularly provide philanthropic support to the SDFA’s many student programs.

“The SDFA is all about student success and supporting families, and it is something that is an honor to be a part of,” says Angel. “Robin (Okun Hengl) once spoke about a student who had been living out of her car who received emergency funds with the help of the SDFA, and it reminded me of my own struggles to complete my degree. It means so much to all of us to be able to give back to our students.”

Although at first reluctant to get involved, Angel says her active participation and support have been life-changing and memorable. “It's hard to put into words what it feels like to hug a mom who is about to leave her daughter at the dorms for the first time, or what it's like to encourage a scholar with just the right words; you do feel like you've made a real, a lasting difference.

“The SDFA has a huge impact in a scholar's life, but it is difficult to accept that we cannot support all of the deserving students that apply for our scholarships,” she adds. “The Sun Devil family and our community are extremely supportive.  But we need to continue to build the partnerships throughout our local and business communities.”

Okun Hengl says early community support, dating to the original ASU Parents Association, included the creation of two endowments that have been critical to the organization’s long-term service. “It is difficult to imagine where we would be on behalf of our students if not for the forward-thinking parents of 30 years ago. They made us successful from the beginning, and their support is still very much evident today.”

Esquer is thankful for that support, and for the push.

“Sometimes we go through this journey to our career paths and beyond alone,” she says. “I believe having the support of the community truly makes a difference in the lives of those who only need that extra little push to get them through their challenges and into a more stable environment where they can succeed and continue to grow within their chosen careers.

“Not only that, but when the community stands alongside them and helps them out, they are more likely to want to give back to the community. In my eyes, that is nothing short of a win-win situation.”

You can support the Sun Devil Family Association by making a gift today.