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Two National Guard members fill boxes with food.
Computer science student Dayton Dekam, right, has been helping to deliver food with the Air National Guard during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sometimes life is about paying it forward and helping a neighbor in need. And then sometimes in the very next moment, it’s about reaching out yourself for a helping hand.

Earlier this spring as the COVID-19 pandemic grew, Dayton Dekam, a full-time WSU computer science student and member of the Air National Guard, wanted to help out his community. When he learned about a National Guard mission on March 31, he signed up. He was a little surprised to learn that he was headed out the very next day, but he packed quickly, said good-bye to his wife, and headed to Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma.

“Every military member who arrived that day signed up for the mission not knowing how long it would last or what they would do,” he said. “We were then split into teams and briefed on the crisis the food banks are having.”

Since then, he has spent long days handing out food to families at food banks throughout the region. Eighty percent of those the food banks are serving have never needed help before. Because they are elderly or at risk, many of the usual food bank volunteers have also not been able to help.

“The food banks were suddenly having to produce more school lunches and emergency food boxes than they’ve ever had and were losing a large majority of their volunteers,” he said. “Many of the food banks were overwhelmed or even shut down entirely, meaning that countless families were unemployed with no access to school lunches or household food. We learned our mission is to help feed as many families as we can.”

Dekam and his fellow national guard members have spent their days handing out boxes of food and school lunches by the hundreds. Long lines of families wait. They have also helped to organize the food distribution.

“It’s an assembly line of food boxes being stacked on pallets — like Costco on steroids,” he said.

Closeup of Dayton Dekam
Dayton Dekam

The group has also delivered food directly by truck to poor communities and homeless camps. And, there have been hard days when they have run out of supplies to give, occasionally digging into their own pockets to share a few dollars.

“That moment, it has hit me just how many of these people truly have absolutely nothing — they’re just sitting out in the rain,” he said.

After spending long days helping out, Dekam would come home to his studies, trying to keep up in his demanding computer science classes. Then came a moment when Dekam needed help himself.

The end of the semester was coming, and schoolwork was piling up. He loved his operating systems class, taught by Professor KC Wang, which he said was brutal and “the greatest class I have ever taken.”

Trying to manage classes and his National Guard work was overwhelming.

“I just didn’t have enough time at night, and it was starting to wear me down,” he said. “I had to reach out for help.”

A friend suggested he reach out to the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Dean’s Office – an idea that had never occurred to him. And, help came — a few supportive conversations with professors and a little extra time to finish up his assignments. Dekam was able to complete two out of his four classes and got a little extra time to finish up the other two.

“All I needed to do was to communicate, and I was no longer alone,” he said. “The professors and dean were there to help me succeed in my education.”

The lesson he’s learned is that sometimes students end up failing simply because they don’t communicate that they are struggling – with sometimes life-altering consequences. Especially in these challenging times, many of us may just temporarily need an extra hand – for a few days or weeks.

“Even in engineering, the most important skill is to know when to ask for help — because we solve big problems together,” he said.

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