GCU Arena transforms into back-to-school paradise
Story by Ryan Kryska
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
Phoenix Police Officer Edward Munoz stood along the bleachers in Grand Canyon University Arena, grinning toward the event floor turned department store.
Munoz, a Phoenix native, was patiently holding two blue bags for a couple of children who were shopping for new clothes.
“I never had anything like this growing up,” said Munoz, who has been a police officer in his hometown for 40 years. “These kids see that people care about them. The people behind all this have a vision.”
Munoz was one of the hundreds of people who helped out Monday at GCU Day, the kickoff of Back-to-School Clothing Drive’s weeklong New Clothes, New Beginnings.
For the past five years, the event has turned the arena into a shopping center with seven departments. It’s all about sending the Valley’s children back to school with new shoes, uniforms, backpacks and much more.
The children are bused in by their school district and then snake through the arena with some helping hands. Next, they head upstairs where they can grab some books, eat a snack and even receive a free dental checkup. The children are preregistered for the event through their school sites.
Vincent Payne, President of the Back-To-School Clothing Drive’s board of directors, started volunteering at the event in 2002.
Payne recalls a child opening his backpack one year and being elated to find a toothbrush inside because he no longer had to share one with his siblings. He remembers another boy who stuffed his shoes with newspaper so they’d fit tight.
“I always tell people this event is similar to Lay’s potato chips — you can’t do just one,” he said.
An estimated 5,000 children are expected to stroll through this week. Payne, having volunteered at the event for 16 years, has seen more than 75,000 children receive new back-to-school items, but he says seeing just one smile makes the 11-month preparation worth it.
Yes, these people literally start preparing for the next event a year ahead of time. And in some cases, as in the case of Stitches of Love, the preparation never really starts or ends.
Tucked in the back end of the arena lurks these year-rounders. The department is made up of 98 percent handcrafted items, from headbands and shirts to wallets and pants.
Stitches of Love Director Sandy Whitver says she receives handcrafted items from as far away as Connecticut and estimates her current stocked at 40,000 items.
“I remember my first girl ever,” Whitver said. “She was standing there and didn’t know what to do because she had never shopped for herself. A little boy one year brought his stuff back the next year and said he kept it clean so someone else could use it because it didn’t fit him anymore.”
Whitver retired after 40 years at Wells Fargo to lead this mission. She says most of the volunteers are senior citizens who find purpose in knowing that their crochet, sewing and knitting hobbies are going toward gleaming youth.
Whitver arrived at the Arena at 5 a.m. Monday. She planned to leave at 5:30 p.m. but could have been there as late as 8 p.m.
At least one person – but probably more – had an even longer day.
For the drive’s Executive Director, Karl Gentles, Monday started Sunday with a “great dinner” cooked by his wife.
Gentles made it to the Arena before 4 a.m. to put the finishing touches on the event. He said semitrailers dropped off 70 pallets of items on Friday.
“Today, there are 1,000 kids on site from a variety of districts throughout the valley,” Gentles said. “There’s a whole contingent of volunteers — 500 today — all to clear a path for these kids to go back to school prepared to learn.”
Gentles said the drive’s transition onto GCU’s campus has created an atmosphere where children can dream.
“We wanted these kids to have an experience of being on a university campus,” he said. “It shows them what’s possible. That is a really important aspect of what we’re doing here.”
Gentles says running this drive is “probably one of the single most important things” he and his wife have done.
“Helping kids on the way to being successful starts now,” he said.
Every item the kids take home is brand new. The volunteers spend all day Saturday verifying the items’ condition. And it doesn’t matter if 5,000 or 10,000 children make it through — each one of them will go home with $350 worth of back-to-school gear.
Gentles said that generous number wouldn’t have been possible without the drive’s sponsors, which include title sponsor BHHS Legacy Foundation, GCU, CBS5 Arizona TV, Fiesta Bowl Charities, Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Camelback Kiwanis, Discover, Wells Fargo and others.
And then, perhaps most importantly, there are all the volunteers.
GCU faculty across the board are involved in the week of giving, which will bring children on campus from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Thursday.
College of Education Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade is interacting with kids by signing copies of her children’s book, “Thunder’s Vision.” GCU trustee Dr. Jim Rice is running the drive’s shoe section, something he has helped with for the past 12 years.
Among the others who dedicated their time was GCU nursing enrollment advisor Ron Johnwell. He helped size the kids before they shopped.
“This was my first time volunteering for this event. I love it,” Johnwell said. “Growing up, I was one of these kids. I grew up with a single mother and eight siblings.”
Johnwell’s 11-year anniversary at GCU will be in October. He remembers eating lunch under an oak tree that used to sit where the Arena now stands, and he noted other significant campus changes, mainly its improved curb appeal. But he says what hasn’t changed is what the people in purple do.
“It’s been amazing to be a part of the mission,” he said.
Contact Ryan Kryska at (602) 639-8415 or [email protected].
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