A Community United: ‘One Spirit, One Purpose’ Theme Resonates in West Phoenix
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
Helping refugees learn English. Making sure struggling parents have Christmas gifts for their children. Spending time with aging military veterans, reminding them they are never forgotten.
Community service is part of the fabric of GCU. For years, University students and staff have partnered with west Phoenix neighborhood leaders on the streets around campus. That dedication will be amplified this fall with more students on campus than ever before, and the results could be limitless.
A theme being introduced this fall is “Community: One Spirit, One Purpose.” The idea is based on the second book of Philippians, which encourages selflessness and caring for others. Dean of Students Pastor Tim Griffin said the theme is meant to focus students on staying humble amid the accelerated growth of GCU’s campus — that as the University sheds its image as a quiet little Christian college, it’s perhaps even more important to give back.
The larger and more successful GCU becomes, the more resources will become available for programs to help at-risk people who share west Phoenix with the University’s students. Neighborhoods west of Interstate 17 within several miles of the campus have long fought the stigma of being run-down and hopeless. But others, such as Griffin, see west Phoenix as an area in transition.
“To me, I don’t think it’s something we should shy away from,” said Griffin, who oversees the Campus and Spiritual Life offices at GCU.
“People who have a ministry heart, that are bent that way — that are bent on looking at the world as a place to contribute, to invest, to make a difference — they don’t see it like that,” Griffin said. “They see it as an opportunity.”
Expanding Serve the City
Earlier this year, nearly 300 students turned out for GCU’s traditional Serve the City event, helping to paint walls and clear yard debris at the Dream Center Christian recovery home. Serve the City also has aided a monastery, churches and low-income housing complexes where families rebuild their lives.
Being A Good Neighbor GCU spearheads community service programs that help neighborhood children, support Christian non-profits and enhance the quality of life in west Phoenix. Programs include:Serve the City:Hundreds of students cleared debris, painted blighted walls and scrubbed floors at sites known for their service of poverty-stricken families. Increased student interest could expand the event across several weekends; the next major event is scheduled for Oct. 6.Fall Festival: Families received hundreds of donated books, and GCU hosted a carnival-like costume party with games and food for nearly 6,000 visitors in October. Scheduled for Oct. 26.
Soccer clinics: Like the United Nations of youth soccer, the camps created lasting bonds between international refugee children and others from west Phoenix.
Run to Fight Children’s Cancer: GCU hosted 5K and 10K races in March, adding more than $70,000 in fundraising to combat childhood cancer. Races return to campus March 9.
Canyon Cares Christmas: Last December, more than 700 neighborhood children from low-income families received donated presents.
Memorial Day: For the past two years, GCU’s Military Division staff met with residents of Arizona State Veterans Home in Phoenix, helping to brighten their day at the assisted-living facility.
Griffin and other campus spiritual life leaders believe Serve the City outreaches could be spaced out with more precision over several weekends in a semester, rather than sending out hundreds of students on a single Saturday.
The Dream Center, located south of GCU’s campus on Grand Avenue, is an old Embassy Suites motel that has been converted into housing for people looking to escape the dead-end lifestyles of drugs, prostitution and street violence. Residents surrender to the Lord and submit to a structured rehab process to reclaim their independence.
“I felt the presence of God with the people I worked with over there,” said Kasper Axtell, 23, a recent GCU graduate who volunteered at the Dream Center. “Just the pure hell they’ve been through. It’s amazing to see what God can do for someone who’s just been so broken.”
Other GCU students have volunteered at the Dream Center by helping with media projects and criminal justice research, playing to their academic strengths.
“If you allow GCU to just be a paradise where you don’t know what’s going on outside its walls, you’ll miss out on learning about what people have gone through who haven’t had that security,” Axtell said.
Changing children’s lives
Georgia Sepic, who owns the Serrano Village apartments east of GCU on Camelback Road, said students from the next-door University have changed the lives of many of the children who live in the modest complex.
Serrano houses refugee families from more than 20 countries and helps them find basic social services. GCU students have pitched in on everything from educational programs to ice cream socials to minister to residents, many of whom have fled war-ravaged native countries.
“The refugee students see this and they see they might be able to achieve the same thing through Grand Canyon University,” Sepic said.
And they have. This fall, a few of Serrano’s own — including some from Myanmar and Liberia — will begin or continue their college studies at GCU.
It’s one of the many reminders that GCU’s neighborhood is reciprocal, and that the impact is lasting, if not permanent.