On Tuesday morning, Will Bruce wore a full-body turkey costume to work, stood outside a Hancock College administration building in record heat and handed out 75 Thanksgiving dinners to single-parent students.

"I was a single-parent student on welfare," he said prior to donning the turkey costume on the Santa Maria campus.

A longtime college employee, Bruce has spent a portion of his 14-year career as director of Extended Opportunity Programs and Services and Special Projects helping serve some of Hancock College's low-income students.

"I knew what it was like and how the holidays can be difficult for kids, especially if you don't have family support," he said.

For the last nine years, the college's Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education (CARE) program, which offers financial assistance, resources and support for single-parent students, has provided single-parent students at the college's Santa Maria and Lompoc campuses with all the trimmings and fixings needed to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Their goal, according to program coordinator Alex Spiess, is to support students by helping them with their holiday meals for their families.

"We're providing Thanksgiving dinner to our single-parent students to help alleviate some of the economic hardship buying a Thanksgiving dinner would have on some of our students," she said.

After joining the CARE program in January, Speiss said she spent a portion of the last few months collecting donations from the Hancock College community and working with Spencer's Fresh Markets to purchase what was missing. 

"We hear a lot of thankfulness [from parents] and relief for being able to provide something for their family," Spiess said, a feeling Cassandra Camargo echoed.

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"When I would come and get my meal from them, I felt it was such an amazing thing they did to help single parents," said Camargo, a turkey recipient and CARE peer adviser. "It's a hard time of the year for us — it would be hard to be able to provide this on my own for me and my family."

According to Bruce, the number of students CARE provides services to has declined over the past decade. At its peak, the Hancock College CARE center was the largest in the state and served more than 300 students; now, the program provides for roughly 130 single-parent students. He attributes the decline in number to economic mobility through educational attainment.

"If they're going to school, their [financial situation] may be only temporary," Bruce said. "Through education, we take people off of welfare — we make them the next leaders and directors responsible for carrying on our programs."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.