A ministry, a fellowship … a difference-maker

April 23, 2018 / by / 2 Comments

Marco Burgarello earned a prestigious two-year fellowship from Venture for America, but his ministry at an Arizona Juvenile Corrections facility has been equally impressive.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

When Marco Burgarello walks out of Grand Canyon University Arena on Thursday, holding his diploma, his life will be forever changed. His time as an undergraduate college student will be over.

It is the same feeling of accomplishment he has been getting every time he walks out of the Arizona Juvenile Corrections facility on Pinnacle Peak Road in Phoenix. His work with the youths there – his idea – has kickstarted a passion that has taken on a life of its own.

And now he has another mission: Soon, Burgarello will be one of about 200 students nationwide, out of 2,447 applicants, on a two-year salaried fellowship sponsored by Venture for America (VFA), which seeks to create economic opportunity in U.S. cities by giving budding entrepreneurs the skills and resources to create jobs.

It all fits together. Servant leadership. Helping the disadvantaged. Building and growing a community that needs the support.

Funny how things fall into the right place when your heart already was there.

“I wanted to get off the beaten path and do something different,” Burgarello said. “I wanted to create change. I wanted to take a risk and try something that nobody else is doing. That was a group of people that was marginalized, forgotten about, and I wanted to just help them and add value to their lives.

“That’s also what drew me to VFA. After I realized my passion for tutoring juvenile delinquents, I realized I also had a passion for helping marginalized people in cities that are in need for revitalization. I realized that startup companies are a catalyst for economic development and create change, like we’ve started to do with the juvenile detention center.”

‘What are you doing here?’

It started last fall, after Burgarello got clearance from GCU’s Spiritual Life and Local Outreach offices to start the ministry and recruit volunteers. Before long, he and 30 other students were heading up Interstate 17 two nights a week to help 12- to 18-year-olds, all convicted of felonies, work toward their GED.

At first, the juveniles’ response was less than enthusiastic.

“What are you doing here?” they would ask. “You’re a college kid – you should be out partying.”

Undaunted, Burgarello would respond with, “We just love you guys. I love just being here spending time with you guys.”

“They have so much potential that nobody sees, and it gets overlooked,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I think you’re going to be able to do amazing things. I want to show you that there are people who care about you and love you.’

“They don’t really have any consistent people in their lives, and so we try to be that consistency to them, whatever that looks like. We just try to be a source of encouragement and light. If we get them their GED, then they have the confidence when they’re released to go do something and find a job and start a new life and love their life again.”

That all sounds great, but it is not work for the faint of heart. “There are some pretty hard kids in there,” is the way Burgarello put it. One of the teens he mentored had a typical scenario: His father was long gone, his mother struggled to be a fully functioning parent and his two older brothers were in prison.

“They come from such unfortunate circumstances,” Burgarello said. “They’re put into a situation where there’s really nothing else for them to do, and we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to say there IS something different to do. They have dreams and goals – they just don’t believe in themselves.”  

Before long, resistance transformed into acceptance and then unabashed enthusiasm. What started with 17 participants grew so fast that the weekly sessions had to be expanded to twice a week to accommodate all the kids who wanted tutoring, and there’s even a waiting list. Eight of them earned their GED. Three even earned the privilege of going to a GCU basketball game.

“It’s been fabulous,” said Judy Keith, the center’s Volunteer Services Coordinator. “Some of our biggest gangbangers want tutoring.”

Tough selection process

The VFA fellowship will be in a much different setting but with similar goals. To earn the prestigious honor, Burgarello had to go through a four-round process that included answering essay questions, submitting his resumé and an essay on why he wanted to do this work, and passing a Skype interview.

The final hurdle featured about 50 judges and 100 candidates, with grades determined by how well the students performed in various group activities, solved problems and delivered presentations.

“It was tough,” he said. “They basically simulated a very intense working environment, similar to a startup company. They throw you in the fire and see who rises to the challenge.”

Clearly, Burgarello rose up. Time and again, he has found himself in leadership roles – he was student body president at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix and Director of Operations for the recent TEDxGrandCanyonUniversity 2018. “God has blessed with me being a natural-born leader, I guess,” he said.

But he also feels a debt of gratitude to the leaders in the Colangelo College of Business who have mentored him: Dr. Randy Gibb, the dean, and instructors Jon Ruybalid, Mark Jacobson and Paul Waterman in particular. He said the things he learned in class had direct application to the tests he faced on the VFA selection day, and afterward one of the judges told him:

“I’m very impressed by someone your age who’s so knowledgeable about the business model because you don’t see that with college seniors. Your knowledge of the business model is far off the charts compared to many of our other candidates.”

Burgarello’s response:

“I have to credit that to GCU and the Colangelo College of Business with Randy Gibb because that’s where I learned it. Without that, it would have been different.”

Different. It keeps coming up in Burgarello’s story. Leaders dare to be different. They learn to listen from other leaders who have done the same thing. And that’s how they make a difference in the world.

Burgarello appreciates the fact that CCOB is not like many business schools. It is indeed different.

“The emphasis on the business model canvas is huge,” he said. “I love all the professors that I’ve had there. They’re different. There’s something special about them. They teach real-world application. The GCU professors, a lot of them, had prior business experience, so they spent time in the business world and are able to relate aside from a textbook, which I think has been instrumental in my learning.

“VFA’s whole model is about learning from a startup company. That’s what a lot of those guys did – they had the hands-on experience, and it all ties back together.”

Still work to be done

Burgarello has a lot on his plate as he prepares to accept his degree in Finance and Economics.

His ministry just completed its last official week of visits to the juvenile corrections facility, but he and a smaller group of leaders intend to keep going back during summer break.

He’s also getting married in May – his fiancée, Caitlin Ferree, is an education major who graduated from GCU in December – and he needs to choose the VFA startup he will work for. (According to a VFA spokesperson, 261 fellowships were awarded, but about 195-200 are expected to be accepted.)

After the fellowship he’d like to form a startup of his own, but the main thing, in his mind, is “to spread Jesus wherever I go. Those cities especially need Jesus and need some change.”

Just as a juvenile corrections facility needed the exact same thing. But the benefits have gone both ways.

“Youth prison ministry has changed me completely,” he said. “I feel very blessed when I walk out. I feel fortunate. I feel changed when I walk out of the gates. It’s kind of like, ‘Whoa.’”

Someday, no doubt, former juvenile hall detainees will look back on their contact with the GCU students with similar sentiments. It’s a circle that keeps going round and round, benefiting everyone in its path, both givers and receivers.

That’s how lives are changed, and it starts with people who follow their heart and then just know that they’re right where they’re supposed to be, forever moved by what God has placed in front of them as they go from one ministry to another.

They never really walk out. They just keep walking the walk.


Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or rick.vacek@gcu.edu.


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2 Responses
  1. David Sederstrom

    This is my friend and my player. He is really smart. I’m so proud of Marco. Going to GCU for college is a lifetime experience. GCU is my plan to go to for college.

    Apr.23.2018 at 1:09 pm
  2. Jane cicinelli

    Well done, Marco!

    Apr.25.2018 at 10:17 pm
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