Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
In the span of two months, Crystal Allen’s father died of COVID-19, her daughter’s father passed away, and before she could even breathe again, she lost her mother.
“I’m going to be brutally honest. I was spiraling,” Allen said.
With her spirit battered, she lost her apartment and everything in it and became homeless.
“I was not mentally there with everything. … I needed spiritual help. I needed prayers,” said Allen, who reached out to North Phoenix Baptist Church’s Hope Center. Its director, Susan O’Hara, “lifted me up … and let me know that everything is going to be OK and just take one day at a time — and that’s what I’m doing.”
She’s taking those one-day-at-a-times not just with help from the Hope Center but from CityServe at Grand Canyon University, which supplied her with a bed, sofa, lamps and, most importantly, a fresh start.
Allen, a mother of two, is one family member among the 6,500 families that have been impacted this year by GCU CityServe, the most ambitious community-service initiative at the University yet.
And what a whirlwind year it has been for the outreach ministry, which celebrated its one-year anniversary Tuesday.
What began as a seed planted by Dave Donaldson, Chairman and co-founder of CityServe International, has grown into a warehouse with 88,000 feet of storage space that, in just 12 months, has distributed more than $3.5 million of household items and other in-kind gifts to those 6,500-plus families. The GCU CityServe team has been able to do that important work thanks to more than 95 community partners spanning the state.
“One of the things we have learned as a result of this involvement is that the need is literally shocking, and it’s not out there somewhere, it’s right here — people that are sleeping on the floor, people that don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” GCU President Brian Mueller said at the celebration, which included tours and talks by community leaders, pastors and students.
Pastor Roy Lainez of Maryvale’s Unidos en Una Vision (United in One Vision) spoke of those needs and how GCU CityServe, in stepping up to meet them, “has been an inspiration for us.”
“I thought it was only in my home country, in Honduras, where people don’t have a home to go to,” Lainez said. “But I also realized in this country there are people who don’t have the basics.”
He spoke in his native Spanish of immigrants from Latin America — professionals, such as architects and lawyers — who come here with nothing. He ministers to single mothers and grandparents raising five or six grandchildren.
His ministry has been able to help those in need through CityServe, which also supplied toys for summer school and items for a family festival earlier this month.
“CityServe and Grand Canyon University are making a difference in the community, and they have looked for the best partners — the church — because through you, the name of the church is being cleaned,” Lainez said.
Donaldson and Wendell Vinson had the same kind of confidence in the church when they founded CityServe International in Bakersfield, California, five years ago.
They wanted to revitalize the church and change how it serves the community. They saw it as not just a place of worship but as a vehicle for transforming broken communities into flourishing ones.
So they created a network of churches and Christian-focused organizations that distribute donated goods from retailers such as Costco, Home Depot and Amazon — mostly household items — to those who need them. The goods make it to warehouses, such as the one at GCU, then are disbursed to families through community partners called PODs.
Donaldson always wanted to partner with a university and found that kindred spirit in GCU.
“We need the church to be bold and fearless like never before,” Donaldson said. “A.W. Tozer said a scared world needs a fearless church, and I believe God is using GCU and CityServe to embolden churches here in this area and around the world.”
Donaldson shared a story about his recent trip to Ukraine, where he heard emergency sirens sounding and missiles coming in. The bishop overseeing these Ukrainian churches said, “Jesus is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail.”
CityServe International, which is partnering with No Child Hungry, has shipped 2 million meals to Ukraine and will continue to do so with the help of GCU. The University is planning a meal-packing event Oct. 23 in GCU Arena. The goal is to pack 500,000 meals.
“We can DO this,” Donaldson said of such good works at home and abroad. “We are part of Jesus’ master plan. He’s building a plan, He’s building His church, and you are part of it.”
Mueller pointed to other families GCU CityServe has helped as part of that plan: the more than 85 beds that Sleep in Heavenly Peace built alongside GCU CityServe so that children didn’t have to sleep on the floor; the bug zappers brought to the Apache Indian Reservation; and the bed, TV stand, dishes and more delivered to the Beltran family, who lived in a small RV for a year before moving into a home.
“It still is like Christmas Day every time we open the back of the truck,” GCU CityServe Warehouse Manager Nathan Cooper said of never knowing what will arrive at the warehouse.
He spoke about some of the oddities that find their way there, such as the kayaks that made him wonder, “What are we going to do with these?”
They found their way to camps for foster children in Flagstaff.
The Hope Center’s Susan O’Hara shared the time GCU CityServe POD Relations Manager Paige McMahon asked if her organization needed bags. McMahon offered a pallet of them donated by Delta Airlines. As it turns out, Hope Center volunteers were bagging the items from its clothing closet into garbage bags.
“Now we get to hand our clothes out in a nice clear, clean plastic bag that represents us so much better,” O’Hara said. She credits GCU CityServe for making her better at her job because, “They make me think outside the box.”
Cooper thanked those hard-working PODs and volunteers: “It’s amazing to see how many volunteers have been here the past year and how many come back. … Even if they’re CCSC (Canyon Christian Schools Consortium) students that fulfill their hours, they still come back and want to be a part of this because they know the impact we’re making in this community.”
Freshman volleyball player Tatum Thomas has volunteered often at the warehouse alongside her teammates.
Service is a “guiding principle” for the team, she said, adding how she values CityServe because it “has strengthened the bond within my team.”
Associated Students of GCU President Camden Marasco shared how CityServe gives students the opportunity to “love this community” and how “the student body is very proud about everything that’s going on. We’re very eager.”
Mueller and Donaldson said this young volunteer force is where the future of the church — and human flourishing — lies.
“I’m trying to inspire our students because the next generation has to take ideas like this to a whole new level, and they can,” Mueller said.
|GCU CITYSERVE ONE-YEAR NUMBERS|
|More than 6,500 families impacted|
|More than $4 million of in-kind gifts received|
|More than $3.5 million of in-kind gifts distributed|
|More than 2,700 volunteer hours|
|95 POD partners across the state, from Flagstaff to Tucson to Globe|
“It’s incredible what has happened in just this past year (at CityServe),” said sports executive Jerry Colangelo, after whom GCU’s business college is named. He shared that the way to earn the community’s respect rests in how we conduct ourselves. “… Are we meeting needs, are we making it a better place? I’m encouraged, I’m excited, as many of you are, over the future of this project.”
Mueller also is excited about GCU CityServe’s future. He envisions partnering with 200 PODs by its second anniversary as it continues to transform the community: “We’re just at the beginning of this thing.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at (602) 639-7901.
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