The morning sky was still dark when UC Berkeley fifth-year Janette Meraz and her family joined the growing line at a San Diego food bank, trying to keep themselves warm with blankets and attempting to sleep on the cold concrete.
It was winter break, but Meraz had never felt more stressed. After a long fall semester at UC Berkeley, she had come home to find her family’s financial situation had deteriorated.
Ever since her mother lost her job in September, Meraz, her sister and her mother have been struggling to survive financially, often bundling themselves in layers of winter clothing and going to food and clothing shelters as early as 1 a.m. to make it through the week.
“It makes me sad,” Meraz said. “We’ve always been poor, but we’ve never had to resort to this.”
For Meraz, this ordeal represents only one of the many struggles she has endured while trying to balance schoolwork and supporting her family.
Most recently, after suffering from a long-term elbow injury and undergoing cancer treatment, Meraz’s mother became unemployed, leaving the family without a steady source of income. She has applied to more than 30 positions since then but still has not managed to find a new job.
To help her family make ends meet, Meraz started a crowd-funding campaign Jan. 8 to raise $2,000 before Jan. 31. So far, about 40 people have donated, and she has raised more than $1,600. Meraz plans to surprise her mother with the money as a birthday gift Feb. 8.
If they are unable to raise enough money, however, either Meraz or her younger sister may have to take a semester off school to work.
“We need the money now, and I think it’d be a good way to turn her spirits around,” Meraz said. “Before, it was paycheck to paycheck — now it’s cent to cent. It breaks my heart to know that Mom is going through this.”
This is not her first experience with crowd-funding, however. Meraz’s mother was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in October 2010, after which Meraz needed $5,000 to hire a lawyer to pursue citizenship. Through crowd-funding, Meraz raised more than $2,500 in 10 days, and her mother gained legal residence in May 2012.
Despite Meraz’s efforts to juggle academics with her responsibilities back home, she has not always been successful. When her mother was detained, she withdrew from the university for one semester, which caused her to fall behind. She is now on her second extra semester.
“I was in the middle of two different worlds,” said Meraz, an American studies major and a Chicano/Latino studies minor. “I don’t feel as smart as my peers. I may not have the best GPA and the best situation, but that’s what made me stronger.”
Tenacious and independent, Meraz has been working various jobs since her sophomore year to help her mother and sister. Meraz’s sister, Stephanie, a 21-year-old junior studying at San Diego City College, also works two part-time jobs.
To Stephanie Meraz, her sister is the leader in the family and her support system.
“Whenever something goes wrong she’s the first one I go to, not my mom,” Stephanie Meraz said. “She’s so amazing. She will give us as much as she can financially — she prefers to help us before helping herself.”
Meraz’s friend Marco Amaral, a UC Berkeley alumnus and a funder of her campaign, called Meraz “outspoken.”
“She was a student that was always there fighting for her community,” Amaral said. “That really drew me to building a relationship with her.”
On campus, Meraz has been involved with myriad extracurricular activities, such as volunteering for the RAZA Recruitment and Retention Center and serving as a member of the Latina organization Hermanas Unidas at UC Berkeley.
Meraz also works as a tutor for Upward Bound — a program providing academic support and college counseling for high school students from low-income families — which sparked her interest in education.
“I realized how much power I have to help people,” Meraz said. “I want to share that knowledge.”
She hopes to someday attend graduate school and become a college counselor.
“I came (to college) because I wanted to better my family situation. Should I go back instead?” Meraz said. “Hopefully (the money) gives them enough time to find another job or a cheaper place — (to) get them started.”