Come the holidays, Cindy Fern’s office in Rowland Hall fills up with toys, games and other gifts. Is Fern running a Santa’s workshop on the side? Moonlighting as an elf?

Actually, she’s in charge of Academic & Professional Women’s Verano Holiday Project, and the goods she helps collect are donated by departments throughout campus who “adopt” families living in Verano Place housing. This year the project will help about 15 families – who remain anonymous.

“Many are single parents working on their degrees,” Fern says. “Often, their child has had a health problem that’s drained their finances, and they don’t have money for the holidays.”

As chair of A&PW’s Community Service Committee, Fern organizes volunteer efforts year-round.

“If we hear about someone in need, we try to do something,” she says.

For Mother’s Day, Easter, back to school and other occasions, the group has donated gift baskets to the needy through Share Our Selves in Costa Mesa and Human Options women’s shelter in Irvine. They’ve gathered clothes for Working Wardrobes in Fountain Valley and recently joined the UCI Stars in sewing a quilt to raise funds for the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade.

Fern has always engaged in community service.

“I come from a family of volunteers,” she says. “My mother was involved in Girl Scouts for 50 years and always active in the community.”

She finds time to volunteer while working fulltime as academic counselor and director of student affairs for the School of Physical Sciences. She came to UCI in 1995 and joined A&PW a year later.

“It’s a fantastic way to meet women across campus.” The group started the Verano project in 1991. A&PW members deliver families’ wish lists to departments, which gather and deliver the gifts.

“People are amazingly generous,” Fern says. “We had one donor give 15 $50 grocery store gift certificates. They’ve given bikes and computers. One year I drove around with a dining room table in my van to give to a family. But often, just giving extra food and used clothing can make a difference.”

She hopes the recipients will be inspired to give back once their temporary hardship has passed.

“Someday they’ll probably be better off in their lives, and they may help someone else.”