Empowering Students Through Compassion and Empathy: How the HEAL Project is Improving Basic Needs Accessibility

July 10, 2023

By: Reema Haque

Struggling financially and with family, CSUN graduate Serge explained his trials to a professor, hoping to receive some resources to support him through college. With few resources given, graduation appeared to be out of reach for his foreseeable future. According to Serge, it wasn’t until he encountered the HEAL (Healing-Centered Engagement through Access and Love) Project that he was able to get the help he needed.

“If it wasn't for the HEAL Project, I don't think I would have been able to graduate. I don't think that I would have taken the time to really focus on finding out what is truly best for me,” said Serge.

With pandemic residuals increasing basic needs assistance, the CSUN HEAL Project promotes student success by connecting Matadors who are negatively impacted by systemic inequities with essential resources they need to reach their academic, personal, and professional aspirations.

The creation of the HEAL Project was a result of resource center employees from the University Student Union (USU), recognizing that some students were in dire need of additional assistance. Today, Pride Center, DREAM Center and Veterans Resource Center employees connect these students with the HEAL Project staff to learn about CAL Fresh, the food pantry, transportation services, job opportunities and much more.

Behind this project are Angelouise Legaspi, HEAL project coordinator and Denise R. Barcena, HEAL project coordinator assistant. They are responsible for outreaching to on- and off-campus partners to find aid for students.

Caroline Lee, a third-year psychology student, stumbled upon the HEAL Project during the USU’s Matafest. She said she appreciates how supportive and accommodating the HEAL staff are when it comes to getting students the help they need.

“I had timing issues fall semester to [be able to] use the food pantry services. But if I communicated with [Angel], she could pick up the food box for me and then I could pick it up from her. She just goes out of her way and really cares and does a lot for students,” said Lee.

When assisting students, the HEAL Project staff use healing-centered engagement and a holistic educational approach that derives from trauma informed care, where staff not only look at students’ symptoms but also uplift them.

“We [are] able to look at students … and not [let their] symptoms define who they are. We help them keep persisting and separate from…[the symptoms],” said Legaspi. “That's where empathy and compassion really come hand in hand.”

By addressing the basic needs of CSUN students, Legaspi said she believes the HEAL Project works towards destigmatizing the notion of asking for help.

“[Students] get hit with a ‘No’ and that 'no’ is kind of shattering…like they don't want to ask for help. And they don't know that Denise and I are able to be in that role where we can advocate and connect with colleagues and very much like, work in the gray,” Legaspi said.

To navigate the system, Barcena said Legaspi pushes the boundaries to make sure students have access to a web of tools they may not know about.

“Sometimes [resource regulations] are worded in a way that's not inviting, or it doesn't suit who you are, or your need,” said Barcena. HEAL staff read between the lines to figure out how students can be served by laws, regulations, and protocols that were not created with all student communities in mind.

As for the future of the HEAL Project, Legaspi and Barcena said they hope to expand their team and continue building strong relationships with campus partners who can join them in empowering students through a community of care that includes support allies.

“It's not just about quantity. I want to make sure we're providing a system of care and that they know that they're validated; they know these are safe spaces; they can come to talk to us, especially because they're being vulnerable,” said Legaspi.

To learn more about the HEAL Project, please visit their website or contact Angel Legaspi via email.