By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
“Are these shoes my very own?”
“I’ve never had my own book before.”
“Now I don’t have to share my toothbrush with my brother.”
They’re not comments anyone expects to hear from children. But they’re what Back to School Clothing Drive volunteers have heard at New Clothes, New Beginnings, an event they hope will alleviate some of those harsh realities for the kindergarten through sixth-graders who will be attending the event next week.
The four-day clothing and school supply drive, which serves children whose families are living at or below the federal poverty level, will return to the Grand Canyon University campus for the sixth year beginning with Lopes Day on Monday and will wrap up July 25.
About 5,000 students — all of them are preselected and preregistered in the spring by their schools — are expected to arrive on campus at a new location, the Lopes Performance Center. It’s where they’ll load up on polo shirts, shorts, socks, underwear, sneakers, belts, sweatshirts, a backpack filled with school supplies and personal hygiene products.
“They call it a superstore; I call it a shopping extravaganza,” said University Relations and Outreach Manager Debbie Accomazzo.
It’s a shopping extravaganza that couldn’t happen without the hundreds of volunteers who give their time to set up the event, man the various store “departments” or act as personal shoppers who accompany each child through the floor of the distribution drive.
Hundreds of volunteers are needed to make that magic happen. On just one day of the event last year, 1,000 schoolchildren snaked their way through the various departments with the help of dedicated volunteers, many of them Lopes.
“It takes about 300 volunteers to pull off one day, and I’d like to have 301,” Accomazzo said of her Lopes volunteers.
Most of GCU’s and Grand Canyon Education’s employees and students help out on either load-in day, which this year is on Friday, or on Lopes Day Monday, from 7 a.m. to noon for Shift 1 or noon to 5 p.m. for Shift 2.
Lopes Day is when employees, alumni and student-athletes and other GCU representatives will be volunteering — and there just might be a mascot dance-off, too.
“Though they’re free to sign up any day of the event,” Accomazzo said.
According to Back to School Clothing Drive officials, 1 in 5 students live in poverty, and if they don’t have the supplies or clothing they need for school, many will choose not to go to school at all.
Back to School Clothing Drive wants to break down that barrier to education, and part of fulfilling that mission is New Clothes, New Beginnings.
Not only do the 5,000 preregistered schoolchildren in attendance receive new items at the various departments, they also drop by the Stitches of Love area, where more than a hundred volunteer designers have sewn, crocheted and hand-crafted thousands of unique of items throughout the year for students to bring home with them outside of the school uniforms they’re given, such as scarves, hair bows, wallets and bookmarks.
The personal shoppers escort students to the Stitches of Love entrance, where one of the revered volunteer designers — who have tape measures around their necks — takes them around to choose their own outfit. “That’s the special place. Not just anyone gets to go in there,” Accomazzo said.
It’s in the Stitches of Love area where students this year will find GCU-branded shirts.
Outside of all the shopping, the students also will receive snacks and free dental checkups.
GCE business analyst Stephany Bravo Rivera has volunteered for Back to School Clothing Drive’s New Clothes, New Beginnings for two years.
“I just like going there and helping the kids,” said Rivera, who has helped hand out shoes and has been a personal shopper.
Fellow business analyst Elias Perez has volunteered as a personal shopper as well.
“In a moment of need, always being somebody there” is something important to him, he said.
Both are fluent Spanish speakers — a valuable commodity for New Clothes, New Beginnings volunteers — who are able to help students who are just learning English.
Accomazzo has been involved with Back to School Clothing Drive for 12 years, even before she started working at GCU.
“I have gotten to see them these 10-plus years as they have taken their mission into the future and taken it from a well-loved, well-supported, grassroots mission to creating a pathway to serve the students they impact,” she said.
Annually, the organization serves about 25,000 Title 1 students through the clothing drive and other initiatives.
Accomazzo said GCU wants to help with a student’s first day of class in grade school and beyond.
“The value of having this event on campus is to start building that bridge between a student and their possible future in college,” Accomazzo said, adding how this is one of those events that the University has fully embraced.
“People just love it,” she said. “It’s just as moving and enjoyable for the volunteers as the people who benefit. … They’re having as much of an experience interacting with these kids. They’re changing lives, but in a real, tangible way.”
To sign up for this Friday’s load-in day, contact Accomazzo here. To volunteer at any of the four days of the event, sign up here on the Back to School Clothing Drive website (select GCU when asked to indicate what organization you’re with).
New Clothes, New Beginnings is approved for Community Service Time hours for GCU/GCE employees. Here’s a flyer for more information.
Contact GCU Senior Writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 602-639-7901.