Colorful Niños Seguros builds culture, community
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
A group of dancers dressed in their orange bandannas and white cowboy hats tap-tap-tapped their boots on the tarp-covered Antelope Gym floor Saturday morning at Grand Canyon University during the Niños Seguros Back-to-School and Safety Fair.
A half-dozen more dancers, with ruffled, ribboned dresses and with vibrant orange and red flowers in their hair, joined in.
They insisted on brightening the room.
Vanessa Armendariz had brightened the room just a few minutes before in a different dance as one of the company members of Ballet Folklórico Esto Es México (folkloric dance group This Is Mexico).
“I’ve done it (danced at the event) as long as I can remember,” said Armendariz, who graduated from GCU in the spring with a degree in elementary and special education and now teaches at Phoenix’s Academia del Pueblo (the Academy of the People).
It was her fifth year to perform at Niños Seguros, an event that’s not quite like any other back-to-school fair because it’s as much about culture — and building community ties, which also is a calling for GCU — as it is about backpacks. The Hispanic community that makes its home in west Phoenix and brings such richness of culture to the neighborhood around the University comes together for this event, alive with ballet folklorico dancers, Hispanic music and neighbors there to support one another.
“I see the sense of community that it has,” Armendariz said. “It just feels a lot more family-oriented and feels more community-based. I bumped into two of my students earlier today.”
Niños Seguros, in its 15th year, supplied about 1,500 to 2,000 west Phoenix students with backpacks stuffed with school supplies along with health screenings, vaccinations and informational booths operated by such organizations as SRP, Cox Communication, Alhambra, Cactus Park and, of course, GCU, to name a few.
Families also had the chance to win much sought-after raffle items, such as Razor scooters, bicycles and laptops.
The event has come a long way since former GCU basketball star Ray Arvizu founded it with the late Robert Ortiz.
Seated at a table in Antelope Gym with his four sons nearby, his wife manning the backpack area and his grandchildren also helping out, Arvizu is quick to point to a banner hanging in the gym that says, “National Basketball Champions 1978.”
He was part of that GCU championship team and later would try out for the Phoenix Suns, Kansas City Kings (now the Sacramento Kings) and San Antonio Spurs before making his name on Mexico’s national team as its highest-paid player in the 1980s.
But he never put West Phoenix on the back burner and would return to his roots..
His father grew up in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, Golden Gate Barrio, and Ray didn’t find out until he was in college that his father never graduated from high school, earning his GED instead.
“He always pushed me to stay in school,” sais Arvizu, who would go on to form his own business, Arvizu Advertising and Promotions, to help span the gap between business and the Hispanic community.
He also remembers how both his parents dedicated themselves to helping their neighbors.
“They would raise money through church fiestas. … I just grew up in that atmosphere,” he said.
So in the 2000s, when a rash of drownings devastated the community, Arvizu and Ortiz organized Niños Seguros, or “Safe Children.”
“My first commercial with Niños Seguros was to let people know to watch their kids around water,” Arvizu said.
A portion of Saturday’s event continued that safety focus. Fireman Bill Scott, who served in the Phoenix Fire Department for three decades, sang youth safety songs, such as one that emphasized what to do if there’s a fire.
“Get low!” Scott said, and added with his humorous flair as four children danced on stage with him: “Don’t stop for your pets! Get outside. Don’t stop for your boyfriend! Are you going to get your Nintendo Switch? No!”
GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions was well represented at the event, with about 8-10 faculty and staff on hand along with about 10 volunteers. They were there to provide basic health screenings, such as blood pressure, height and weight, body mass index and blood glucose tests.
“I wanted to get involved; I just wanted to give back to the community,” said Sophie Starn, who will graduate from the nursing program this summer, as she prepared to test students’ blood sugar levels.
Sarah Kading, on track to graduate from GCU in December, hopes to go into trauma nursing. But at Niños Seguros, she was focused on getting young children ready, healthwise, for school.
“I have a really big passion for helping underserved communities,” she said. “If you teach them when they’re young, they’ll keep those (healthy) techniques with them the rest of their life.”
Rennie Hannah attended the back-to-school and safety fair with his wife and four children.
“My wife volunteers at a lot of these events,” Hannah said, but this time around, they were the ones who were the recipients of so much community goodwill.
It was his family’s first year at Niños Seguros, and he appreciated the sense of community he felt.
Armendariz said she decided to attend GCU, in part, because of being introduced to the campus as a ballet folklórico dancer performing at Niños Seguros. She liked that the University had the sense of community she was looking for, much like Niños Seguros.
It’s an event that is very much needed, she said: “This community — and south Phoenix — they’re underserved.”
It’s why Arvizu continues to do the kind of work that he does. Like those ballet folklórico dancers who are all about culture and community, he, too, insists on brightening the room.
“We have great Hispanic families and great entrepreneurs. We’re proud of our Hispanic heritage. We’re proud of our schools. … At the end of the day, we’re just trying to make it better.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.