Christmas comes early to Learning Lounge families
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Since it first began tutoring students at Alhambra High School last year, the Grand Canyon University Learning Lounge has been embraced by the campus community — faculty, staff and student tutors.
On Monday, 15 months to the day after it opened its doors, the Learning Lounge got another big hug. This time, its teenaged clients came on campus, not for free help in reading, writing, math or other subjects, but to receive Christmas gifts from those jolly St. Nicks in the GCU Tempe office complex. Staff in the University’s international, College of Education Mid-Atlantic enrollment and non-degree/single course divisions brought dozens of gifts for three Alhambra students and their 17 family members.
The delivery of gifts, including jeans and T-shirts, remote-control cars, roller backpacks and a “Frozen” waffle maker with pancake mix and syrup, came just a day after more than 350 children and their families in the GCU neighborhood visited campus for Canyon Cares Christmas. The annual event, supported by hundreds of faculty and staff members who purchased gifts and volunteered time, provided the guests lunch, crafts and visits to Santa in the Arena on Sunday afternoon.
Alhambra junior Jane Sabuni and her sister, Lillian, came to the Learning Lounge Monday to receive gifts for their family of nine, which was resettled five years ago to the United States from Tanzania. Sabuni has been tutored at the Learning Lounge since last summer, when she also took a dual-enrollment course in psychology.
Having lived for four years in a refugee camp with her family, Sabuni has experienced some rough Christmases, including the year when a younger sister died of illness. This year will be better, the teenager said.
“I told my mom she was going to have the best Christmas ever, an amazing Christmas,” she said. “Sometimes Christmas crushes me because of what happened to my sister. But I am blessed.”
The other Alhambra students, sophomore Cyrus McMullen and freshman Fatimah Shafi, who recently moved with her parents and three siblings to Phoenix from Malaysia, also opened several boxes of presents and candy. “I really appreciate it,” McMullen said quietly, after opening new wheels for his skateboard, to enrollment counselor Russell Kimbrough.
It was Kimbrough’s idea to adopt the Alhambra families, and he worked with Tempe colleagues Susan DeRemer and Kaitlin Neal to get the word out.
“The initial idea was you have kids struggling in school going to our tutoring center to get some help, so why don’t we give them a little bit of a reward for taking that initiative for their futures? And why not spread that to include their family members?” Kimbrough said.
Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s director of K-12 Outreach DeRemer, said his office was grateful to Kimbrough and his coworkers for their thoughtfulness and generosity.
“It’s easy to get attached to any of our high school students who come in for tutoring, and we are privileged to build relationships with them,” Veres said. “However, when other people outside the Lounge go out of their way to serve and support our students, it truly touches our hearts.”
DeRemer, who goes by “Mama Sue” around the office, said her team responded as it always does.
“All I need to say is, ‘We have a family in need — what can we do?’ and that usually gets a response the same day,” she said. “I feel really blessed that I work in a division where people are really generous with their time and with their money.”
Nearly three dozen employees either contributed cash or purchased gifts for the families, enough that each Alhambra recipient received one outfit of clothing and one “wish list”
item. In all, 24 gifts and $328 were collected, and each family also was presented with a gift certificate from owner Tony Garcia for dinner at Garcia’s Las Avenidas at 35th Avenue and Thomas Road in Phoenix.
“This says to them, ‘We aren’t just interested in your student, we’re interested in your family, and we’re here to help in whatever way is possible,” said DeRemer, who has three older sisters and three younger brothers. “Giving back, helping out — that’s what Christmas is all about, right?”
Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.