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Merced Adult School students help feed homeless

Sometimes the lessons learned go beyond the classroom.

Students in Judy Mounts' computer and office technology classes at the East Campus Educational Center have learned life lessons along with the practical knowledge that could land them a job.

For seven years, the Merced Adult School students have been preparing lunches for people at Merced County's homeless shelter at 15th and D streets. Up to 75 meals are provided about once every eight weeks.

"I have the best students in the world," Mounts said. "I've never had a student not wanting to help do this. They're always good about it."

Fernando Onsurez, 61, has been in the computer- office technology class for the past year and three months. He is enrolled through a Veterans Affairs vocational program and would like to open an organic produce business.

"One of these days, I could be in that predicament," Onsurez said of those needing the lunches. Of preparing the food, he said, "I look forward to it."

Mounts said the program started in 2004, and initially she did little more than provide encouragement to group members who began using their own funds to deliver bag lunches to homeless shelter residents.

"These students who had little themselves began donating whatever they could to feed others," Mounts said. "Over the course of the seven years the class has provided the service, more than 300 students have been involved. Students run the program like a business and make sure that as often as enough funds are available, lunches are donated. This has been a wonderful, giving project and a gift from and to my students over the years."

Marcene Dekofski, 27, of Merced has been in Mounts' class for about three months. Caring for a 5-year-old autistic son, she hasn't had much work experience, but hopes to get an office job with the skills she's learning. Dekofski's mother is homeless.

"I love the class, the atmosphere, the people. I'm learning things I didn't think I would be learning," Dekofski said. "I think it's great. It's a big group effort. It's a very good feeling helping others."

Mounts said students have made up to 75 sandwiches at a time and try to offer them about every eight weeks. Some donate food or supplies and others donate money a dollar at a time. The class sells bottled water to its members and uses the proceeds plus money from recycling to fund the program.

"These students who had little themselves began donating whatever they could to feed others," Mounts said. "While the students in the class change, as new students come in, they find themselves involved in the project as well, so the traditions of the program continue."

Shaffer Fluetsch, 27, has been in the class three months. He received a bachelor's degree in the classics in 2007 from the University of the Pacific and is trying to get real-world skills he can use to become an administrative assistant.

"It's a really good cause and a nice community service," Fluetsch said. "You can still pull together even though you might need help yourself. It's a selfless act."

Mounts has 20 students ranging from 18 years of age to seniors taking her self-paced class.

Students assemble the lunches with whatever ingredients have been donated. Sometimes local grocery stores, the food bank or students' gardens and trees provide the needed supplies.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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