Community zest: Love unites GCU students and those in need
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
Generally speaking, Millennials are self-absorbed, wasteful, even greedy, and not terribly responsible, compassionate or willing to sacrifice. Or so people in that generation (ages 13 to 33) told the Pew Research Group in a 2015 study.
The surveyors must have skipped over Grand Canyon University. Here, a growing number of students rise before the sun to feed the homeless, wedge into their schedules babysitting time for neighborhood moms learning English and consistently make friends with 6-year-olds and septuagenarians alike.
The students do it for no pay or school credit. They get much more — the joy of being able to give back to the community. They are part of GCU’s mushrooming Local Outreach, which has twice as many student-led ministries this year as last that have attracted 1,500 volunteers in the first 10 weeks of fall semester.
Chris Cunningham, Local Outreach coordinator, said the students’ commitment to and love for the populations they serve debunk stereotypes about Millennials.
“People say we are lazy, we don’t work hard, that we’re always talking about helping the world, that we’re attracted to big ideas and dreams, but they want to know when we’re going to stop talking and start doing,” said Cunningham, 25. “I look at the kids involved in our Local Outreach, who get up early and have full days of classes and at the end of the day they are still looking forward to giving more of their time. There’s not much of a material return, but our students see a deeper value.”
On campus, in the University’s neighborhood and beyond its boundaries, Christian and non-Christian students alike are living out Jesus’ own words: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.’” (Matthew 25:40)
Here’s a look at GCU’s four new ministries:
The generation gap narrows
Playing bingo with elderly people and engaging them about the good old days probably isn’t in the top five activities of most college students. Those in the Colter Commons ministry, lovingly referred to by some as “Adopt-a-Grandma,” aren’t most students.
Since September, about 20 students have been building relationships with senior citizens at Colter Commons, an apartment complex a block east of GCU’s campus. They walk over for a resident’s salsa lesson or to carve pumpkins and have hosted residents on campus to swim in the Papago pool, tour campus or dine and stroll together along Lopes Way.
Until now, some Colter Commons residents lived there for years and walked around its expanding borders without ever stepping onto campus. For others, it had been months since they’d left their rooms for much of anything other than meals, but now they venture downstairs and eagerly wait for the college crowd from next door to arrive for games and prizes (including a crowd favorite, Windex).
The ministry is led by Aaron Koehne, a 20-year-old accounting junior whose grandfather died in September. “What drew me is the wisdom I can gain from people who have experienced life already,” Koehne said. “They talk about their family and what mistakes they’ve made. They remind us to stay in school, to stay off drugs, to get a good job.”
Junior Veronica Montgomery, 20, was raised by her grandmother as her parents worked to support the family. Montgomery, whose grandmother died in 2014, has always enjoyed older people because of their stories and simple pleasures. The Colter Commons residents, including Lanaye Zummallen, with whom she has established a special bond, exude a positivity that the college students need.
“They think we are doing something for them, but it’s definitely vice versa, and I think that’s across the board with the ministries GCU has,” said Montgomery, an elementary education/special education major.
Omaida Puerto, a Cuba native, looks forward to Wednesdays with GCU. Her comments following salsa lessons she gave recently to 16 students were interpreted by freshman Stephanie Applegate, a digital film student at GCU. “Their youth is contagious. GCU is like an injection of youth,” said Puerto, 67. “Everyone here wants to go to a basketball game, but I am the No. 1 fan of soccer, and I will come (to a GCU game) whenever they ask.”
That same evening, Colter resident Barb Cowan played a game of pool with three students. They are “a blessing, a breath of fresh air” from a neighbor she has grown to admire.
“GCU’s building around us is like a giant hug,” Cowan said.
Inner-city hope kept alive
Isaiah Gomez is quick to get to the heart of his involvement in Neighborhood Ministries, which weekly brings GCU students to a warehouse of energy and harsh reality near downtown Phoenix.
“Just to see how blessed we are in this bubble of GCU, how can you not want to give back when you see kids who don’t have clean clothes to wear or food to eat?” the 20-year-old leader said. “There is so much room for grace and love there. That’s where I see the Gospel the most, with people who are so open to you and just need some stability in their lives.”
On a recent Monday evening, about 100 inner-city youth in kindergarten through seventh grade participated in Kids Life, a Neighborhood Ministries program that offers a structured evening of art, Bible stories and songs, small group discussions, outdoor play and dinner. Kendra Carter, a 21-year-old GCU business management student, tried to coax a bite of hot dog, just one, into little Manny at a table where they worked on a rainbow drawing.
“The kids have been through a lot and have some walls up,” Carter said. “My favorite part was playing with the kids outside. It’s not hard to give them attention and love.”
Kids Life director Bryan Larson said GCU students offer a steadying, consistent presence to the little ones and are role models for the older youth.
“The leaders have jumped right in, and the biggest thing is being a positive influence and being a loving person,” Larson said. “The GCU team has been amazing.”
Gomez, an entrepreneurship junior and the first person in his family to go to college, shines during a Bible study with the older boys. He leans in and looks them eye-to-eye when the topic of God’s existence arises. “I haven’t seen Him yet, but I see Him sometimes in creation,” Gomez said, the boys nodding in agreement.
A new lease on a community’s life
When GCU students walk over every day of the week to First Southern Baptist Church on the southeast corner of the main campus, they are ready and able to handle a variety of tasks at the New Life Pregnancy Center.
It may be as simple as handing out diapers with a Bible verse printed on the package, sorting donated clothes or being responsible for collecting cards the mothers have posted on a prayer wall. It may be as challenging as babysitting a child whose mother is learning English or how to become a better parent.
No matter the job, the new partnership is a blessing to the 25 GCU students who have volunteered this semester, said Jaci Curran, Local Outreach coordinator.
“It helps them to step outside their normal comfort zone, to open their eyes to the rest of the community and to begin a lifelong practice of helping others,” Curran said.
Monday no longer a ‘hunger night’
It hasn’t been so long since Mary Khorany was a tween, and she knows how impressionable and vulnerable an age that is, how she could have used a wiser but not so much older person in her life. The 20-year-old didn’t think twice about taking the lead in Youth Ministries this fall.
She and other GCU students handed out fliers in October to parents at Canyon Kids, a Saturday morning Local Outreach ministry at which children are taught Bible stories at Little Canyon Park on the University’s northern border. They invited older children to come to the park late Monday afternoon to be picked up by GCU students and head to campus for bowling and pizza in Thunder Alley. Khorany planned for 15-20 pre-teens. Forty showed up.
“I was blown away by how God worked,” the business management junior said. Each week, music, games and a Bible message are shared before the students break into small groups to talk about whatever is on their hearts. And, of course, there is food.
“We want parents to know their children are safe and sustained,” Khorany said. “Monday night is no longer a hunger night.”
Contact Janie Magruder at (602) 639-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.