GCU is helping paint new view of west Phoenix
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the February issue of GCU Magazine, an inside look at the unprecedented growth of the University in the last decade. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
Grand Canyon University students are encouraged to seek and find the purpose God has set out for them.
For decades, that has involved helping disadvantaged populations in the inner-city Phoenix community in which GCU resides by volunteering at homeless shelters, nursing clinics or homes that assist veterans, refugees, the elderly and victims of sex trafficking.
Those efforts are significant to provide relief for those in need, but University officials wanted to do more – they wanted to lift an entire community and revitalize what had once been a middle-class neighborhood. To that end, a comprehensive and ambitious five-point plan was established in 2015 that would increase home values, reduce crime, create jobs on and off campus, and support K-12 education.
“When we think about what God has done in terms of blessing us here at GCU, it’s not right if we just come here every day for ourselves,” GCU President Brian Mueller said in 2014. “We need to make an impact in the community. We need to be the restorers of the world we live in. There’s a brokenness everywhere, but together – with the right plan – we can transform this.”
One of the most visible ways GCU is carrying out its plan is through its Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona partnership, thought to be the first of its kind in the country. In 2015, GCU announced it would rehabilitate hundreds of homes in the Canyon Corridor, between 43rd Avenue and Interstate 17 and Bethany Home and Indian School roads.
Roberto Torres, a neighborhood resident since 2001, has seen how the partnership is increasing home values, which rose 302% in the 85017 zip code between 2011 and 2019.
He said six of his neighbors have taken advantage of the initiative to renovate their homes, and Torres has welcomed GCU and Habitat teams three times to his house on the 3000 block of Mariposa. He sees more pride of ownership in the neighborhood thanks to an initiative that has impacted more than 280 families.
“If you had been here five to 10 years ago, you really can see the improvements. It’s amazing,” said Jason Barlow, president and CEO for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, who often shares the GCU model of community service with other companies.
GCU and Grand Canyon Education employees have directed more than $2.9 million to the project through Allocate to Elevate, the Arizona tax credit deduction via giving program, and employees and students supply the volunteer labor.
One of the stories Barlow likes to tell is of a wife who asked her husband, “When did the neighbors move?” after a recent window replacement. “He told her, ‘Honey, they haven’t gone anywhere.’ The new windows made everything that quiet.”
Barlow calls GCU’s efforts “a purple love blanket that hangs over this whole neighborhood.”
Supporting K-12 education
Another example of that blanket is the Learning Lounge, the result of former Alhambra High School principal Claudio Coria sharing with Mueller in 2012 the challenges his students faced.
Helmed by Dr. Joe Veres, GCU’s Vice President for Student Success, the Learning Lounge is a free after-school tutoring and mentoring program located in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Building.
“On the first day, three students showed up,” said Shari Stagner, Director of K-12 Outreach. “That’s not the case anymore.”
While the program initially focused on Alhambra, the Lounge on campus has expanded its reach and has impacted students from 150 K-12 schools, Stagner said. As of Dec. 31, 2019, approximately 4,000 unique students had spent more than 130,000 hours of study there, tutored by GCU students called LEADs, or learning advocates.
In 2019, the Lounge opened its first off-campus site at the Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball complex, furthering that West Valley K-12 educational impact.
With the Learning Lounge in mind, the Students Inspiring Students neighborhood scholarship was born in 2015. In the first four years, the University raised money to support 261 students through full-tuition scholarships with the goal of building that number to 800.
The first two SIS scholarship recipients graduated in spring 2019, eight more followed in December and 50 more are expected to graduate this spring.
SIS recipients pay it forward by serving as LEADs while in college, impacting the next generation of K-12 students behind them.
“We’re developing human capital,” Stagner said. “We are giving these students the opportunity they deserve … to fulfill the dreams they have for themselves, and in turn, while they’re with us, they’re giving back.”
GCU’s Neighborhood Safety Initiative, a $1.6 million, eight-year partnership with the Phoenix Police Department to reduce crime in the area, has had a significant impact since its 2012 introduction.
The program supports Phoenix police crime suppression efforts in the communities surrounding GCU by paying for overtime that allows for additional patrol officers in the area to target criminal activity and increase police presence.
“I’ve been in the police department 34 years, and I’ve seen very few partnerships that have been as successful as what we’re doing with GCU and the neighborhood organizations,” former Phoenix Police precinct commander Kevin Robinson said in 2014. “This is going to have long-lasting positive effects on everyone in the community.”
The University has created approximately 11,000 jobs affiliated with its campus, which serves as an anchor institution in the community, and is producing an annual economic impact of $1.1 billion, according to a survey by Elliott Pollack & Co.
In addition, the Canyon Ventures business incubator space that opened in 2019 attracted 31 start-up companies within the first six months. And, in the past five years, GCU and GCE launched 10 new business enterprises that employ nearly 400 people, including a hotel, golf course, two public restaurants, a merchandise company, a student ad agency and coffee and pizza companies.
“These businesses serve as a training ground and hands-on experience for our students while also providing management opportunities for recent graduates and employment opportunities for residents in our neighborhood,” Mueller said.
It’s that purple GCU love blanket warming the community even more.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.