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Arisa Larmay has never been afraid of hard work – but she’s also learned that hard work isn’t always enough to pay the bills.

In her five years at Oregon State University, the graduating senior has held seven jobs – often more than one at a time – including stints as a resident assistant in the dorms, a Spanish tutor and an employee with a campus catering service.

She found creative ways to stretch her money, such as attending campus events where she knew food would be served and sharing a bedroom in an off-campus apartment with another young woman. She applied for as many grants and scholarships as she could.

Even so, she frequently found herself struggling to pay her rent or keep groceries in the cupboard.

“On average I would work about 30 hour a week while I was a full-time student,” Larmay said. “And it still didn’t provide me enough to buy food or have my own room.”

Her financial difficulties came to a head last summer. Her work-study job had ended at the close of spring term, and she was taking an 18-credit class load in summer school. When her lease ran out at the end of June, she didn’t have enough money to get into another apartment – even sharing a bedroom.

“I was homeless for the month of July,” she said. “That was a very difficult time.”

While holding down an 18-credit class load in summer school, Larmay pushed her financial creativity to new heights.

She stowed most of her belongings in her 1988 Chevrolet Capri and kept the rest in a free locker at OSU’s Valley Library. She broke open her piggy bank, where she’d been stashing money since high school, but that only yielded about $70.

She thought about sleeping in the library or even her car, but was able to avoid that by couch-surfing with friends during the week and driving to Amity on the weekends, where she could stay with her aunt or grandmother.

“That was really hard,” Larmay said. “I ended up collecting cans and bottles to pay for food.”

And then she found a helping hand, in the form of OSU’s Human Services Resource Center.

Housed in Champinefu Lodge at 1030 SW Madison Ave., the HSRC has a host of resources designed to help students in financial difficulties. There’s a free food pantry that hungry students can access one day a week, cash assistance to help stretch tight food budgets, even a program to help students apply for food stamps.

The center has emergency housing programs, a textbook lending library, and can help students sign up for the Oregon Health Plan. It also has a laundry room, cooking facilities and lockers.

And the facility gets a lot of use. According to assistant director Nicole Hindes, the HSRC has served 2,500 unique students this school year.

“It’s hard to focus on school when your stomach’s growling or you don’t know when you’re going to eat later,” Larmay said.

“Luckily, in my situation, it was only for a month. There are other students, I don’t know how they do it.”

Earlier this year, when the OSU Board of Trustees paid a visit to the center, Larmay – who now works at the HSRC – saw an opportunity to get some additional support for the services that had helped her through such a tough time.

Seeing OSU President Ed Ray sitting at a table, she walked over and sat down beside him – and told him her story. Larmay says Ray was touched by what he heard from her and other financially struggling students and promised the university would do more to help them.

After graduation, Larmay has a summer internship lined up with Kaiser Permanente in Clackamas, where she’ll work as a health navigator in the cancer treatment program. After that, she plans to apply to medical school and hopes to become a doctor.

But first, though, she’s trying to tie up some loose ends on another project aimed at helping other young people struggling to make ends meet.

“I’m trying to start a nonprofit,” she said.

The idea behind the fledgling program, called We Care and Can, is to collect returnable bottles and cans and use the deposit money to provide small grants to college students and others faced with high medical bills.

Larmay and two friends collected more than 1,000 empty water bottles at the recent Dam Jam music festival on campus, gleaning a little over $100 for the cause and bringing the total amount raised so far to more than $500. She’s hoping to grow the organization to include other campus chapters beyond OSU.

“Eventually I’d like to get bigger donations,” Larmay said.

“Who knows? If this takes off, it could be a full-time job, so we’ll see.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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