Pessimists often say one person can’t make a difference.

Twenty-one-year-old UCSB junior Gabriel Scherger knows he can.

The geography and pre-med major’s holiday ideology revolves around the notion that one person can make a difference, and regardless of the size of the ripple of difference he creates, it still impacts the lives of others.

Each year since 1997, Scherger spent his Thanksgivings operating his own offshoot of the San Diego Basket Brigade, where he reached out to hundreds of low-income families in Chula Vista, Oceanside, Vista, and other areas of his hometown with meals, clothes and toiletries he personally gathered and distributed.

“To see another person smile makes me happy,” he said. “Everything you do, you do for yourself of course, but when I help others, it helps me. … When I was a senior in high school, I delivered the baskets to needy families and their faces were like, ‘Wow.’ ”

This year, Scherger chose to focus his efforts on Santa Barbara County. Over the course of a few months, he collected five trashcans full of clothes and toiletries donated by Francisco Torres, Fontainebleu and Fontainebleu Annex residents. In addition, the Chinese American Association at UCSB recently gave him 400 cans of food. Yesterday, he filled the back of his truck with the $1,000-plus delivery, and headed to the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County.

Food Bank Volunteer Coordinator Kate McCarthy was admittedly surprised a young person would make such a laborious effort on his own to help the volunteers in their efforts. The bank, located on Hollister Road, was actually behind in their turkey drive before the day began, she said, but after a number of small contributions like Scherger’s and $14,000 in monetary donations that morning, Monday became a turn-around day.

“I think it’s terrific because we didn’t even know this effort was going on. It has been this plethora of goodwill today,” she said. “We were all so scared this weekend of not having enough turkeys in our freezers, but there has just been this giving and giving. We are very pleased with the community outreach.”

The Food Bank of Santa Barbara County started up in the mid-1980s to serve as a rations outlet for charities such as the Salvation Army and AIDS Project that distribute food and clothes directly to those in need. The Food Bank relies heavily on volunteers like student intern Alicia Alves.

“I have a class with Gabe, and I’ve heard him speak in class and he seems to be very concerned with pressing issues in the world,” the senior sociology major said. “He seems to be demonstrating it today.”

Scherger first began collecting food, clothes and toiletries for families while working for inspirational/motivational speaker Tony Robbins in an annual Basket Brigade.

“Every Thanksgiving, [Robbins] does a Basket Brigade, because when he was a young boy someone came to his family and gave him a basket. He had a really poor family,” he said, relating the story of his own desire to help people. “And he came up to them and said, ‘I didn’t put this together, I’m just the delivery person.’ ”

Scherger’s belief that able strangers should help strangers in need played an ironic part in a turning point in his life in January. While coming back from Las Vegas around 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Scherger, who was an FT resident assistant at the time, was hit head-on by a drunken driver. The drunken driver was not wearing a seatbelt and died on impact, while Scherger and his then-girlfriend, Jolene Blessing, survived thanks to two strangers.

“The seat belts and air bags saved Gabe and [Blessing] in the initial collision. Their car then caught on fire. Luckily, two men that were about three minutes behind them were able to pull them away from the car about 50 feet when the car completely exploded. The pictures we saw looked like something out of a movie,” Gabe’s father Joseph told the Nexus in January after the accident. “The men were able to call 911, and the volunteer fire dept. called Flight for Life helicopters to take the kids to the university medical center.”

The crash put Scherger into a 10-day coma, and did not speak for five weeks. He remained in the hospital with a broken femur and nose for two months. He said his parents told him that while in the coma, he spoke of angels; however, Scherger admitted that he is not a religious person.

Now back in strong health, Scherger said he seeks to make the most out of his life “right now.” However, he admits that his over-extroverted personality hasn’t been easy to maintain in the presence of local law enforcement in the past month. He was arrested on Oct. 21 on Del Playa Drive and Nov. 7 while trying to encourage people to vote near FT in the back of his car painted with advertisements for Al Gore. Both arrests were under suspicion of being drunk in public, and he will attend his first court date today.

“I’m very outgoing and very crazy, and a cop pulled me aside on [Oct. 21] when I was at a highlighter party – I put highlighter fluid all over my body, and I was looking for my ex-girlfriend. I saw all these pretty girls, so I’m like, ‘We got a party in there, the best party in the world,’ and I started dancing for them. And then there was this car behind me and people were like, ‘Watch out, there’s a car behind you,’ ” he said. “And then I got handcuffed and taken to the drunk tank. I’m 21, and I had a shot and a half.”

“On [Nov. 7], I was in the back of my truck going, ‘Vote for Al Gore,’ with my stereo on the top. And so I was pulled over and [an officer] said, ‘You can’t be in the back of your truck,’ and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I never knew that.’ And then he said, ‘You’re on ecstasy.’ And I’m all, ‘No I’m not…’ and he said, ‘You’re drunk, too,’ ” Scherger said, laughing. “I hadn’t had anything to drink.”

Though his community involvement has run into these kinds of setbacks, not to mention Scherger’s hours of solo labor, he holds fast to the optimistic ideal that positive change created by the work of one individual is important and worthwhile. He retold his favorite story, an anecdote from Tab Ramos of Famous Ramos Cookies, which he feels best explains why he continues and will continue to help those less fortunate than him in the future.

“One night while on a vacation in Mexico, a man decided to take a midnight stroll down the deserted beach. There was a full moon down the beach, and he could make out what appeared to be a young boy. It appeared that this boy would scurry around the beach, reach around and pick up something and throw it as hard as he could back in the surf. As the man drew closer, he looked down to discover that the beach was littered with starfish,” Scherger said. “Upon reaching the boy, he asked him what he was doing. This young man explained that every full moon the high tide would wash all these starfish so far up on the sand that they couldn’t get back and the next day they would die in the sun. The man responded that there must be thousands of miles of beach and millions of stranded starfish – how much difference could this one boy hope to make? The boy pondered this question for a moment, looked at the starfish in his hand, tossed it as hard as he could back into the sea and answered: ‘It made a difference to that one.'”