Thanksgiving baskets brighten homeless teens’ day
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Jerry Perkins knows what it’s like not to have new clothes. Or school supplies.
Or a home.
“When I was in high school, I was what they call a couch surfer. I was homeless and lived in foster care,” said Perkins, a faculty member for the Bachelor of Science in Health Care Administration Program in Grand Canyon University’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions.
It’s why he connects so much with homeless teens and volunteers with Homeless Youth Connection, an organization founded in Goodyear, Ariz., that helps homeless teens with basic needs and support to complete a high school education.
For several years, he and his wife, Sheri, have helped with the organization’s Thanksgiving Basket Drive, putting together and delivering baskets jam-packed with everything from school supplies and hygiene items to gift cards. And they did so again this year, when the nonprofit spent two days delivering Thanksgiving meals and baskets to some 800 homeless teens staying with host families or at shelters across the Valley.
“It is kind of a part of my give-back because I’ve been there, done that,” said Perkins, whose grandparents qualified as foster parents and were able to care for him until he was adopted. “I know what it’s like.”
Perkins has since worked in health care administration, supervising health physicists as a compliance program manager for the state of Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency for a decade before becoming an educator.
Looking through both those lenses – as a once homeless teen himself and as an educator – his heart is big when it comes to homeless youth.
“Giving homeless youth the chance to finish their education and find jobs is one of the things he is very passionate about,” said Maria Delph, Associate Dean for the Professional Studies and Baccalaureate Programs in the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions.
“It’s hard to be in education and not support someone trying to finish their high school degrees so they can further their education. That was the primary starting point for me,” Perkins said.
One of the things that touched his heart during recent Thanksgiving basket deliveries was when a 15-year-old girl who received the GCU-themed basket that Perkins assembled is a big fan of GCU.
“She was super ecstatic because they do a vision board where they try to map out their goals on what to do to get through high school and their next steps,” he said. “Her vision board was all about attending GCU, and one of our baskets that we put together was a pure GCU basket with Thunder and all the little things I could find at the Lope Shop to help decorate that.”
Perkins wasn’t the only GCU employee who helped brighten a homeless teen’s Thanksgiving this year. Several other College of Nursing and Health Care Professions faculty also donated basket items and assembled baskets.
Members of GCU’s Future Health Care Administrators Club have contributed hygiene items to baskets and supplied clothing, too. The club also has volunteered at other Homeless Youth Connection functions, such as 5K runs.
“God calls on us to serve, and HYC allows us to do that with individuals during a crucial time in their lives,” said Future Health Care Administrators Club President Jose Donis.
Perkins remembers when the organization helped just one teen graduate in its first year of operation more than a decade ago. This year, it helped 800.
“But with 8,000 to 11,000 homeless, there’s still a ways to go; we have room to grow,” said Perkins.
The organization is connected to 90 high schools in Maricopa County, working with case workers and student advisors to identify teens who might need support.
Thanksgiving isn’t the only time teens need that support. Socially maturing individuals have a difficult time with the lack of normalcy a home may provide, something heightened during a global pandemic.
“Christmas is coming, too, and any time there’s a break, it’s hard on homeless teens,” said Perkins, who knows that some of the teens the Homeless Youth Connection has helped are now GCU students.
“Health care providers, by their nature, are drawn to helping others,” said Delph. “Our faculty are some of the most caring. They always look for opportunities to lift up the most vulnerable in our community, and Jerry is a great example of that.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
To help: Go to hycaz.org