UCLA students Bryan Pezeshki and Amir Hakimi, hosts of the Fall Harvest Feast, say their grandfather, who was involved in many philanthropic activities, is the inspiration for their projects.
This Wednesday, two UCLA students — Anderson M.B.A. student Bryan Pezeshki and his cousin, neuroscience major Amir Hakimi — will be making sure that 100 of their fellow students and their families who often struggle with hunger can feast at a free banquet on campus and go home with gift bags of food and other goodies for the long holiday weekend.
Pezeshki, 24, who created the Fall Harvest Feast in 2010, and Hakimi, 21, are the latest in a group of 13 cousins who have all been students at UCLA. While the annual feast the two organize requires funding and support from several campus departments, it’s fair to say that the motivating spark behind this project was a man who never went to UCLA and who died before the event was even created: Yehuda Boodaie, grandfather to those 13 cousins.
“Our grandfather was very involved in philanthropic activities, many of which we didn’t even know about until his passing,” Pezeshki said. “He always encouraged us to take the extra step to help people. I think he inspired all of us cousins.”
“He was very interested in giving back in large and small ways,” Hakimi added. “If he had leftovers from dinner at a restaurant but saw someone who was hungry, he would give it away without a second thought.”
That influence is part of why Pezeshki also founded a nonprofit in his undergrad days at UCLA. Swipes for the Homeless collects UCLA students’ leftover meal-card swipes in collaboration with UCLA Dining Services to distribute food to the needy. Pezeshki took the program national, winning praise from the White House. After Pezeshki got his B.S. in 2012, Hakimi and another cousin, Benjamin Boodaie, took over the UCLA chapter, and a UCLA alumna became CEO of the national Swipes for the Homeless.
While Boodaie graduated in the spring, Hakimi remains as the advisor of the UCLA Swipes chapter. Hakimi also co-founded Furnish the Homeless (video), which collects students’ discarded furniture when they move out of Westwood and distributes it to people in transitional housing, which often comes unfurnished. This year, Pezeshki is back at UCLA for his M.B.A., so he rejoined Hakimi to help organize the annual Fall Harvest Feast.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the cousins have each worked closely with the UCLA Volunteer Center. There, they got to know center director Rachel Corell, who speaks warmly of all three. The center is also the main sponsor of the Fall Harvest Feast, covering the cost of catering, room reservation and decorations, as well as helping whip up donations for gift bags.
“Bryan was an outstanding Volunteer Center Fellow, and he started the Fall Harvest Feast while he was with us,” Corell said. “The idea was to bring together students who were in need, along with their families, so they have a real family meal in a warm and welcoming environment.”
The menu will feature all the trimmings of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, from turkey and stuffing to side dishes and pies. Guests at the feast will gather family-style around eight-person tables. For families with children, markers, construction paper and other crafty fun will be within reach. For every guest there’ll be a gift bag of non-perishable food, dental hygiene kits donated by UCLA’s Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center and other items donated by Bruins or Westwood Village businesses, such as movie passes or ice-skating tickets.
“When we gave movie tickets out last year, one woman said, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t been to a movie in years. It’s like Christmas is here already!’” Hakimi recalled. “We take things like that for granted, but you don’t realize how much it means to someone else.”
He credits Corell for inspiring him to keep expanding the feast with ideas for adding more items to the gift bags or making the event even more family-friendly.
“The cool thing about Rachel is she loves it when a student has a new idea,” Hakimi said. “She keeps building with them until the idea happens. She sets up the foundation for us to grow and build on.” That’s part of why the feast has expanded beyond students and their families, he added. “Community members and UCLA students come. It really unifies the community and shows that UCLA is here to help.”
The Fall Harvest Feast is one of many programs on campus in line with the goals of the UC Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness UC resources to address global food needs. The Thanksgiving feast is supported by the UCLA Volunteer Center, the Bruin Resource Center, the Community Programs Office, the Community Service Commission, the Wesley Foundation, the University Religious Conference, Residential Life, Swipes for the Homeless and the Westwood Village Improvement Association. The organizations help with planning and logistics, setup and cleanup, publicity, and finding or making donations, explained Emily Ives, a coordinator of several programs at the Bruin Resource Center.
“Bryan and Amir are both passionate about helping others,” Ives said. “This project is really important and provides a great resource for our UCLA community, and we’re grateful that they created it.”
And while none of their projects were easy to set up, taking significant time and effort, Pezeshki said, the joy of helping others "is what keeps us going when we encounter setbacks.”
“Once you see people’s happiness when they receive these things we take for granted, it gives us the energy for the next quarter,” Hakimi said. “The way I see it, most of us were born lucky, into a good family and secure homes. Rather than take it for granted, I want to help those who don’t have those advantages.”
The cousins and their extended family grew up in greater L.A., meeting at their grandparents’ home over Persian food for Sabbath dinner on Friday nights. They still do so, with their grandmother cooking heaps of food. She beamed with pride when she saw Pezeshki carrying on her late husband’s legacy at the first Fall Harvest Feast, which Pezeshki brought her to as a surprise.
“We should bring her again this year,” Hakimi suggested to his cousin.
“Oh, she’d love it,” Pezeski said, before chuckling. “If she knows ahead of time, she’s going to make them so much food!”