Community is in the swing of Canyon Kids program
(Editor’s note: This story is from the May 2016 issue of GCU Today Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.)
Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
At 9 a.m. on a Saturday, while many of their peers at Grand Canyon University are slumbering or shaking off the night’s cobwebs, about 50 enthusiastic volunteers are hopping and bopping to Christian rap music.
“Church clap let me hear the church clap (church clap). Church clap let me hear the church clap (church clap),” they chant as Evan Fallon, filling in for absent leader Joe Koetter, cavorts and croons in the lobby of Cypress Hall.
They are getting ready to leave campus to gather, shepherd-like, children ages 3-15 for a morning of Bible verses, games, crafts and skits at nearby parks during the school year in a weekly ministry program called Canyon Kids.
The rap is the energetic beginning of a ritual that for many is the highlight of their week: bringing joy and ministry to a rapidly growing population of children who live in the neighborhoods surrounding GCU.
What started as a handful of Department of Spiritual Life volunteers working with a small group of kids in Little Canyon Park has blossomed today into a vital ministry with dozens of GCU students and more than 100 children in two parks, said Jaci Curran, Spiritual Life outreach coordinator.
The Canyon Kids program is so successful, this year organizers began a new outreach in Cielito Park.
“The purpose in our mission statement is to create a safe environment surrounded by volunteers who love the
Lord and who are Christ-centered and instill Biblical truths into the kids,” said Yvanna Rodriguez, a student leader.
Already, parents and children are flocking to the fledgling Cielito Park program, which started this year. From 15 children the first week, the number sprang to 45 by week four and is still growing, Rodriguez said.
After the hip hop, the volunteers split into two groups. Rodriguez and others knock on doors as they make their way, Pied Piper style, to Cielito Park.
To build a critical mass of children for the new arm of the ministry, volunteers went door to door to every house near the park, brochures and permission slips in hand, to invite children to Canyon Kids.
“At first, everyone was kind of shy, reserved,” Rodriguez said of the children.
But many — such as the three Vazquez sisters, Romina, 6, Mariana, 8, and Brianda, 11 — are waiting outside their homes for the weekly visit. Ponytails bouncing, they rush to hug their GCU friends.
Their mother, Alma, waves goodbye. That parents like Alma are content to watch their children walk down the street with GCU students is a testament to the level of trust the Canyon Kids program instills.
Laughter, chatter and shouts of joy fill the air as kids arrive at the park. Some kick a soccer ball and play hopscotch while others make for the swings and slides. Some cluster around a handful of picnic tables and play with chalk and nail polish.
“I think I’m addicted to purple,” Brianda says, giggling, as Megan Ziegler, a sophomore nursing student, helps her paint her nails. “I like it because of GCU!”
Crafts, a Bible lesson and a skit
The volunteers create “stations” based on the Bible verse, which this week is, “As for God, His way is perfect: The Lord’s Word is flawless; He shields all who take refuge in Him.” (2 Samuel 22:31)
For the arts and crafts project, the children paste together a construction paper shield with a cross and a copy of the verse.
For the skit, volunteers Josh Micko, Steven Culebro and Kayla Michaels brainstorm under a tree.
Micko, a freshman justice studies major, suggests an enactment in which hikers come to a fork in the woods, one shorter and easier and the other harder but “God’s way.”
The hiker goes the hard way and stumbles. But because “the Lord is our shield, Jesus is our shield,” the hiker recovers his footing and the way becomes clear, Micko suggested.
“Seeing all the kids have engaged, one-on-one time with people who genuinely care and love on them” is a moving sight for Rodriguez. “And when you see the message of the Bible verse stick, it’s amazing. God can do His work here at the park.”
Christian Barrow, who happened to be in the park with her children, Alison, 5, and Romel, 2½, strode over to request a permission slip.
“This is perfect for the community,” Barrow said. “All these kids will get to know each other better.”
‘God is like a shield’
Over at Little Canyon Park, Fallon sits cross-legged in the grass surrounded by more than a dozen children who are munching on fruit snacks.
“King David knew that God is like a shield. A shield protects us,” Fallon said. “King David knew that no matter what happened to him, God would protect him. … If life gets tough, God protects us.”
Fallon instructs the children to clasp their hands together, close their eyes, and shout: “I love God!”
The words are music to the ears of junior nursing student Olivia Meek.
“The volunteers have such passion and love for the kids,” Meek said. “It’s so amazing to see so many smiles. Sometimes I can’t even explain how much I enjoy these kids.”
Britannee Carranza, a junior justice studies student, said she had to skip a few Saturdays and noticed the difference.
“I missed the children so much,” she said. “It’s so rewarding. Just teaching the Word to them is so cool.”
And watching them get the Word is even cooler. Frankie Davis, 9, was asked if his shield is protecting him.
“No,” he said, “but God is.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or @firstname.lastname@example.org.