Serve the City, CityServe: the magic of community
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. For the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
Most days at Grand Canyon University, pre-physical therapy major Josh Thammavongsa wields his knowledge of human anatomy. But on this crisp February morning, he wielded something else — his face mask and a paint roller — at Sonchez Brown’s home, just a mile from campus, for Serve the City.
It was the first time in a year that Thammavongsa ventured outside GCU’s gates to volunteer for a group project like this, ever since the University paused in-person service projects because of COVID-19 precautions.
He received an email about the GCU/ Habitat for Humanity event — one of five home-improvement projects happening simultaneously during Serve the City — and jumped at the chance to be out in the community again.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Not a lot of people have been able to do something like this, so I just took the opportunity.”
GCU has been returning to the neighborhood slowly but surely this semester, not only for Serve the City but for the University’s two most visible community initiatives — its COVID-19 vaccination Point of Dispensing site, manned by 600 to 900 volunteers weekly, and the GCU CityServe Farmers to Families Food Box Program distributions.
“It was amazing to get back out into the neighborhood and with our families,” said Community Relations Director Debbie Accomazzo, who emphasized how GCU continued to support Habitat in other ways during the COVID-19 hiatus – employees continued to fund Habitat projects through employee giving program Allocate to Elevate.
The GCU-Habitat partnership, as of the end of February, has resulted in 819 repairs completed at 326 homes, with employees contributing close to $3.8 million to fund those repairs since January 2015.
GCU’s high-profile partnership with CityServe has continued to ramp up, too.
The USDA, since May 2020, has been purchasing agricultural products from distributors — food that might otherwise go to waste during the pandemic because of school, restaurant and other shutdowns — and has dispersed those products through CityServe’s network of partners, including GCU. The University distributes those 30-pound boxes of food to its own community partners, which then make sure families in need receive them.
The USDA in January announced the allocation of an additional $1.5 billion to the program, extending the initiative through April. And GCU again stepped up.
By the end of February, the University had handed out more than 4,500 boxes to almost 30 partner organizations. That number was expected to exceed 8,500 disbursements by the end of April as GCU continues to build its network of community partners, recently adding such school districts as Tolleson Union, Scottsdale Unified and Deer Valley Unified.
GCU President Brian Mueller’s vision is to connect with 100 community partners for future disbursements that will go beyond food and COVID-19 relief.
CityServe is working with major retailers and other donors to receive surplus products, from clothing to school supplies, that would be stored in a 35,000-plus square-foot campus facility.
Greg Harman, Assistant Vice President for Academic Alliances, said the bigger vision is for GCU to build intimate relationships with those families, find out what their needs are and help them transform their lives.
“The second step is to work with various colleges on campus to see what other resources we might be able to provide to assist the families on long-lasting transformational change,” Harman said.
Added Accomazzo, “The magic of CityServe is really the magic of community. It’s meeting need where it is, but it’s not just about fulfilling an immediate need. It’s about understanding the determinants that can transform that need into prosperity.
“That food box? That’s just the vehicle — that’s just the opening line, the icebreaker, so to speak. It’s the conversation we get to have along the way that exposes the opportunities to provide resources and help.”
And that’s really what’s exciting.