Student ministry makes the homeless feel special
By Peter Corbett
GCU News Bureau
People still were sleeping on the ground Saturday morning at a Phoenix shelter when a group of Grand Canyon University students began setting up for their Homeless Ministry event.
On this day, the students unloaded a rental truck full of clothing for a long line of men and women at the Central Arizona Shelter Services compound near the Arizona Capitol.
Besides the clothes, the GCU students gave away toothbrushes and toiletries, shampoo and socks. They painted fingernails, provided haircuts and washed the feet of scores of people living on the streets or in shelters.
GCU freshman Isaiah Wilson explained that foot washing is symbolic in Christianity. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper to teach a lesson of humility and about serving others.
Sixty GCU students participated in the ministry inside the chaotic CASS compound, where people huddled with their belongings, lounged at picnic tables and asked about what the young visitors were offering.
Outside the shelter at Madison Street and 12th Avenue there is plenty of despair to go around. People gathered on littered streets to get food and clothing handed out by other charitable groups from vans and SUVs. One man sat on the street in the shade of a gleaming, black Cadillac Escalade eating his breakfast from a clamshell Styrofoam box.
Phoenix Fire Department paramedics tended to an elderly woman who needed medical assistance.
In the CASS compound, the line to get clothing from the GCU ministry grew to at least 30 deep for the men but much shorter for the women.
Mary Mills, 64, wearing a pale blue hat and tweed jacket, sat in her wheelchair unable to get over a curb to pick through clothing that had been donated this semester at GCU dorms.
GCU sophomore Isabelle Cox stepped in to help and found a few long-sleeve shirts for Mills.
Cox, who has been serving meals to the homeless this semester, said the experience has been eye-opening for her and other students who come to help.
“There’s trash everywhere and people sleeping on the street,” she said. “There’s a lot of hurt. It’s really hard to see that.”
A lot of people go on missions around the world, but Cox said she wanted to help people here in Phoenix, which has one of the nation’s largest homeless populations. A 2014 count estimated Maricopa County’s homeless population at 17,500, according to the Phoenix Rescue Mission.
Mills, clutching her new clothing, said she is staying in housing provided by St. Vincent de Paul.
She said she grew up in Grand Rapids, Ohio, and was a cheerleader in grade school. Her family moved to Arizona, and she graduated from Glendale High School.
She met her first husband working at the Pioneer Home in Prescott, and they had six children. Mills had not been in touch with any of her children for years until last week, when a GCU student took the initiative to help her.
Iryna Glavnyk, a junior from Ukraine who is on the swim team, said she went online and found some of Mills’ family in Iowa. Mills was able to talk with them on the phone and learned that she has 14 grandchildren, Glavnyk said.
“It feels so great to help,” she added.
Sophomore Naomi Drury painted Mills’ fingernails a bright shade of scarlet while they sat at a table under a shade canopy.
Drury said she has become friends with the people the GCU ministry serves meals to each week on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“I’m here because they’re my friends and you want to do nice things for your friends,” Drury said.
Other GCU students helping out on Saturday included Sidney Roscon, Dani Way and Christina Robles, who was in charge of clothing donations.
Nearby, other students were washing people’s feet in plastic tubs and giving them new socks.
Megan Floyd, a sophomore majoring in Christian studies, was chatting with two women as she washed their feet.
She later explained that she was with the GCU Homeless Ministry last year when it did a “test run” on washing feet at the shelter. It was a powerful experience for her.
“It was incredible,” she said. “It was a catalyst for what I want to do after school.”
Jairid Rossow, who is graduating with a sociology degree this semester, organized the foot washing and other assistance for the homeless.
The event grew this year with more participation by students, who donated clothing, food and other items, he said.
More than 60 students volunteered to help with the ministry and served about 1,000 people, Rossow said.
Papa John’s donated 150 pizzas, and a charity group donated 250 hot dogs and chips.
“I think it was a huge success because we had such an incredible team,” he said.
Rossow said many of the people the ministry helps are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Some have mental and physical disabilities or have just come out of prison. Most have no family support, he added.
The GCU ministry works with the Church on the Street and its rehab program, which allows paroled men and women to stay for six months at the Phoenix Dream Center, a converted motel, to find a job and get on their feet.
Rossow, from St. Cloud, Minn., started attending GCU in 2013 at age 21 after touring the world with the singing group Up With People. They would stay with host families and do community service projects when they weren’t taking part in the Up With People performances.
Rossow’s globetrotting included Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Switzerland, Taiwan and Tucson and Bullhead City, Ariz.
He praised GCU for the student leadership opportunities he has had.
“I love the academics and my professors, but the student engagement is what makes GCU so special,” he said.
Contact Peter Corbett at (602) 639-7588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.