Momentum, interest build in Year 2 of Habitat union
By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau
Patricia Brazil and her daughter Michelle had lived together in a house on Camelback Road for 45 years, from the day mother brought daughter home from the hospital as a newborn. Their aging home needed a paint job and new windows to improve its insulation from summer’s sear and winter’s chill and to block noisy street traffic.
So it was nothing short of a blessing when, in the fall of 2014, a team from Habitat for Humanity and Grand Canyon University dropped by the Brazils’ home to discuss a new neighborhood revitalization program that would assist homeowners in gussying up their property. The women loved meeting the friendly, purple T-shirted students who attended classes right across the street and decided right then to take advantage of the offer of help.
They would use their income tax refund to pay their share of the project and pitch in on the sweat equity, too.
Patricia, who died two months later, never got to see the shiny new windows or the warm sandstone paint her daughter chose. But Michelle, who lives in the three-bedroom house with her 6-year-old son, Nathaniel, feels that her mother would approve.
“I hope she’s looking down and thinking that I made good choices,” she said, looking around her big front yard punctuated by flower pots, a wind chime, a hummingbird feeder and an inviting front-porch swing.
The Brazils are among 43 families in the Canyon Corridor south of GCU and around the new Grand Canyon University Golf Course in Maryvale who in 2015 benefitted from the University’s unique partnership with Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona. The homeowners provide partial financing and sweat equity on home repairs, painting, landscaping and more.
The goal of the four-phase initiative, part of GCU President Brian Mueller’s neighborhood revitalization plan that was launched in January 2015, is to upgrade as many as 700 homes.
“This partnership with Habitat for Humanity is part of a larger mission — along with our public schools initiative, our safety initiative and our jobs initiative — to really make a difference in this neighborhood,” Mueller said. “Home values are up 30 percent, crime rates are down 30 percent, public school rankings are improving and jobs are more prevalent for the people who live in this community.
“As the fastest-growing employer in the city, GCU will serve as a hub that is going to make this one of the most desirable neighborhoods to move into and invest in,” he said.
Last year, 584 GCU student and staff volunteers contributed nearly 4,000 hours to the Habitat projects, which involved painting, landscaping, roof repairs and other work on the homes’ exteriors.
“This has got to be the closest match to heaven for Habitat,” Jason Barlow, president/CEO of the Central Arizona affiliate, said of the GCU partnership, “because of our similar Christian missions and desire to build communities, families and hope. To have a huge partner with a lot of staff, students and enthusiasm is super.”
It also spawned a unique program by which GCU employees can use their state tax dollars to support Habitat. In 2015, Habitat received nearly $313,000 from GCU and its employees, who contributed through Donate to Elevate, a program that allows them to direct their state tax-credit money to Habitat with no effect on their take-home pay.
Second year to bring expanded focus on neighborhoods, student involvement
So far in 2016, employees have pledged $367,000 to Habitat through Donate to Elevate, and the work area is being expanded to neighborhoods north of campus from Interstate 17 to 35th Avenue. Additionally, GCU is now an official campus chapter of Habitat, which means students will be involved in every step of neighborhood improvement, from training and outreach to the actual work and follow-up to it, said Chris Cunningham, GCU’s Local Outreach coordinator.
“Students will now have the opportunity to take part in advocating for low-income housing, which is a huge need nationwide and in our neighborhood specifically,” Cunningham said.
Senior Brandon Johnson first participated in a Habitat project during last fall’s Serve the City event, in which the Brazils’ home was included. Johnson immediately was sold on the uplifting music, a GCU trademark, the contagious enthusiasm of students and the fact that it was a volunteer opportunity within walking distance from campus.
“The volume of students leads to more students signing up,” said Johnson, a pre-med major and president of the GCU Habitat chapter. “If everyone else is getting up early on a Saturday morning, why shouldn’t I?”
Junior sociology major Taylor Williams also jumped into Habitat with both feet last fall, painting and hauling rocks for a landscaping project. Williams quotes James 2:26 when asked why he volunteers.
“’For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also,’” Williams said. “We are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. He suffered and died for my sins. I can suffer for six hours to help put in a lawn or paint a house.”
Williams said he hopes GCU’s neighbors see that the students, instead of going out to party the night before, got up early to reflect Jesus’ love for us. “We are loving our neighborhood like He loved us,” he said.
Williams wants to be involved in Habitat leadership at GCU, going house-to-house to hand out literature and speak to homeowners. “The most exciting part will be when someone says, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m only doing this to show the love Jesus Christ has for me.’”
GCU staff has been stepping up, too, signing up as teams from individual departments and taking advantage of GCU’s Community Service Policy by volunteering on Fridays. Through July, seven Habitat projects have been scheduled on select Friday and Saturday mornings, said Debbie Accomazzo, the University’s community outreach manager. Individuals are plugged into the schedule when possible, but the trend, both at GCU and around the country, seems to be teams, Accomazzo said.
“This gets folks out of the office together and focuses them on a finite task, taking them out of the day-to-day routine and enabling them to create new ways to mesh as a team,” she said. “They each bring different skill sets, but they are all given the same tools and the same goals and activities. It’s fun to see what can be accomplished together.”
Dr. Laura Terry and 12 other faculty members in the psychology department of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences together moved 17 tons of gravel, after digging out grass and laying down black plastic, on one chilly morning in December.
“It was great for the team to interact with each other out of the classroom and the office and out of their element,” Terry said. “It was surprising to see how many people took the time to come out, especially since it was at the start of Christmas break, and seeing the gratefulness of the homeowners was really special.”
Habitat made it easy, too, she noted, in that all of the equipment and the instructions for using it were provided to the faculty members.
Barlow said he’s never seen such motivation and enthusiasm as has been exhibited by GCU, its faculty, staff and students.
“This model is something that could be shared all over the place,” he said.
Brazil, who grew up in the neighborhood riding her bike to Cielito Park down the street and crossing a sleepy Camelback Road to hit golf balls on GCU’s grassy fields, said it’s obvious that the area has declined over the years. But now that the college kids in purple are pitching in and their University is here to stay, there’s nothing the neighborhood can’t become, she said.
“It’s nice to have some kind of change,” she said.