GCU/Habitat volunteers get to know their neighbors
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Before Grand Canyon University’s thundering herd truly became a thundering herd, GCU and its neighbors listened to the bleats of a different kind of herd.
Just ask Dennis and Bonnie Wincentsen, who would look out the window of their home on North 40th Drive, just a couple of miles from the University. Instead of multifloored apartment buildings and traffic busying itself on Camelback Road, they saw herds of sheep on a nearby farm.
When the Wincentsens bought their home in December 1960, practically nothing occupied the area but farms.
“I was the first one to buy,” he said of his Canyon Corridor neighborhood home, which received a face-lift recently thanks to neighborhood-revitalization efforts by GCU and Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona. “There were eight houses here. There was nothing across the street.”
But “GCU was there,” said Dennis, 81, of one of the few nonfarms in the area.
“It was one building,” said Bonnie, whose brother attended GCU – “He was going to be a coach,” she said.
Last fall, the Wincentsens decided to dial the phone number on a letter they received telling them how they could get their home refurbished for a minimal cost through a GCU/Habitat partnership.
The organizations united in 2015 to launch the Canyon Corridor project, with the goal of renovating residences and returning the neighborhood to what it once was – a thriving middle-class community. That initiative – the largest of its kind in the country– was the first that Habitat undertook and would spark similar projects outside the Canyon Corridor, such as in nearby Maryvale.
Since it launched four years ago, the GCU-Habitat initiative has provided more than $2 million in home repairs for 239 families. More than 4,160 employees and students have volunteered to work on those homes, tackling everything from painting to landscaping. And employees are being tapped again this summer for more renovation projects June 14 and July 12, the final projects before the 2019-2020 Operation Revival season kicks off.
“2018 was the biggest year to date as far as volunteers and volunteer hours, and it’s only going to grow,” Community Outreach Manager Debbie Accomazzo said.
For the Wincentsens, it was time for the home they lived in for almost 60 years to get a much needed spruce-up.
“We sat on the letter for two or three days, then we thought we’d call them and see what they could come out and do,” Dennis said.
A few Habitat representatives came first, followed by other volunteers a week later to do some preparation work. “The next thing you know, the group was all here painting the house, and they did a beautiful job,” Bonnie said.
“They sent out 40 people from the college. Twenty of them went to somebody else’s house to do landscaping, and 20 of them stayed here. It was like a bunch of little beavers walking around with brushes,” Dennis said.
Bonnie didn’t think the team would bother with painting some of the rear exterior of the home, where potted plants and other décor covered the walls.
“But the guy came around and said, ‘We can do that. That’s no problem.’ So they did that for us, too,” Bonnie said, amazed at what volunteers were able to do in such a short amount of time. In just one morning, they were able to transform their home.
Accomazzo sees the amazing things GCU and Grand Canyon Education volunteers do regularly to transform their community. She knows she’ll see the same for the remaining Habitat projects of the summer. About 70 volunteers are needed for those project dates (sign up here).
“June and July are harder months to fill because it’s hotter outside. But we’ve had tamer weather recently,” Accomazzo said, adding how projects generally start at 6:30 a.m. to beat the heat. “It can be daunting to think about volunteering outside in June and July, but it really is such a special event.”
The Wincentsens were so pleased with the painting of their home that they’re thinking of signing up again, possibly to have work done on their windows.
The couple’s home has been an integral part of their memories over their almost 58 years of marriage.
Dennis recalls how he met Bonnie those many years ago: “I met her through a friend of hers. They were going to school together. I pulled up in front of her house on a blind date. She’s looking through the Venetian blinds …”
“I thought, ‘Oh my God! He’s on a motorcycle,” Bonnie said.
Dennis, who served in the Navy for a time, would go on to build the couple’s lives as a worker in the steel-fabrication field.
“I started out as a helper, and lo and behold, the foreman turned into a superintendent – it was her dad,” he said with a smile.
“And he wasn’t easy on him,” Bonnie said. ” … to begin with.”
Dennis would become a machine operator, welder, tacker, fitter and then worked in layout. He helped with the construction of steel buildings as well as gasoline tanks and other steel fabrication.
In the time the Wincentsens have been in their home, GCU always has been a part of their lives.
Not only did Bonnie’s brother attend GCU. So did a nephew, who studied accounting, and their nephew’s daughter, who graduated from the University in 2018.
They’ve spent some time on campus over the years, watching the basketball games when Ben Lindsey was the coach and, lately, following GCU basketball on TV, though their current satellite cable provider doesn’t carry the games.
“I was upset with that because it was fun watching them,” Bonnie said.
And, of course, they were more than happy to share their stories with GCU and GCE volunteers when they stopped by to paint their house in November.
Accomazzo said getting to know GCU’s neighbors is part of what’s special about Operation Revival.
“We have more opportunity to meet homeowners — they work alongside us — so to get to know the people we’re helping but also get to know their stories. I feel like the connection to the homeowners is growing, and they’re more familiar with what this mission is all about,” Accomazzo said, adding how Habitat volunteers also “look forward to when it’s a GCU project. … They’ve found it’s a great group of people to work with.”
When volunteers painted the Wincentsens’ home in November, the couple spoke to them about their early days, when nothing was here but farms and a one- or two-building GCU. Not even Alhambra High School had been built.
Dennis remembers riding his bicycle two times a week to deliver prescriptions for a local drug store at 27th and Montebello avenues. Then there was the packing shed on Grand Avenue, where employees moved fresh vegetables from the farms into train cars that made their way to an ice factory in Glendale before heading to their final destination.
The city, since then, has grown up around them.
“Construction didn’t explode until the late 1970s, early ’80s. It just expanded,” he said of west Phoenix.
And GCU is far from the one- or two-building campus it once was — with far more employees to help with Habitat projects. It’s a true thundering herd, for sure, and one ready to help its neighbors as west Phoenix grows together.
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.