After 12-month hiatus, GCU returns to Serve the City

Grand Canyon University and Grand Canyon Education volunteers returned to the surrounding neighborhood on Saturday to complete Habitat for Humanity projects as part of Serve the City. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Homeowner Sonchez Brown had wanted his home painted since he purchased it a year and a half ago. Habitat helped him pick the color: "historic district." (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Ever since buying his home a year and a half ago – a quaint stucco one-story with its row of distinctive rafter tails jutting below the roofline – Sonchez Brown dreamed of painting his house, but he couldn’t afford to do it.

Until now.

His wish became reality Saturday when a team of Grand Canyon University and Grand Canyon Education students and staff grabbed blue paint tape and paint rollers and made that dream happen alongside longtime community partner Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.

“I know to you guys this may be just helping out one person, but please understand that you really are touching me and my family,” said Brown, who took time out before the 8 a.m. start time to tell every volunteer personally how much he appreciated them. “This house is probably never going to be sold out of my family. This paint job is what everybody’s going to remember and say, 'You know what? This is what happened.' I will definitely make sure that they all know that GCU was the one that helped contribute to that.”

Brown’s house, on West Solano Drive south, just a few blocks from the University, was one of five homes being renovated simultaneously Saturday morning by GCU and Habitat as part of the twice-a-year Serve the City, a day when the organizations team up in a home restoration blitz.

Volunteers completed projects at five homes on Saturday. (Photo by Lana Sweeten-Shults)

They were the first on-site Habitat projects the GCU community delved into after they were put on pause a year ago because of COVID-19 precautions, though this year, Serve the City looked a little different.

In pre-COVID times, 200 to 300 students would fan out across the neighborhood to tackle up to a dozen home improvement projects. This time around, about 50 volunteers took up shovels, paint rollers and wheelbarrows to complete facelifts on the homes on this scaled-down version of Serve the City.

The tools of the trade on Saturday turned out to not only be shovels, paint rollers and wheelbarrows, but temperature checks for each volunteer, a paperless check-in system, masks and, of course, keeping 6 feet apart.

Brown, who is from Cincinnati, followed his dad to Phoenix a few years ago.

“He would call me on Christmas and say, ‘I think I might go outside and go swimming,’” said the jovial Brown.

It wasn’t by accident, he said, that he ended up in GCU’s neighborhood.

“The purpose of me getting this house is I knew the property values would go up and that being close to GCU would be a benefit.”

He didn’t know how much of a benefit until getting a flyer in his mailbox about Operation Revival. The GCU/Habitat home renovation initiative is part of the University’s five-point plan to restore its inner-city west Phoenix community. One point in the plan is for the University to help increase home values in the Canyon Corridor through one of the largest Habitat for Humanity partnerships in the country.

Brown receives a GCU gnome -- a gift given exclusively to Operation Revival homeowners. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Since the initiative started in 2015, GCU has served more than 320 families and completed more than 800 repairs, thanks to students, faculty and staff contributing 26,000 volunteer hours.

Not that the University paused its support of Habitat for Humanity altogether. Employees during the pandemic have continued to help fund projects through Allocate to Elevate, an initiative in which GCU and GCE employees redirect the tax dollars they normally would pay to the state to initiatives that are important to the University, including Habitat.

Homeowners also contribute to the cost of the renovations, on average 33% of the cost, said Habitat for Humanity.

Dusty Parsons, Director of Marketing and Media for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, said that because of COVID, the organization has limited the number of volunteers to stay within health safety guidelines. “But great partners like Grand Canyon and other community partners have really stepped up and kept our funding in place and really helped us moved forward.”

Ever since the COVID-19 shutdowns, the GCU community has been eager to add to those numbers and continue that work.

GCU President Brian Mueller lends a hand at Brown's home. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“It feels good,” GCU President Brian Mueller said of the return into the community to fulfill that plan as he joined the volunteer team in painting Brown’s house. “Anything that you can do these days to make life feel like it’s getting back to normal is a good thing. One of our themes is adapt to COVID but keep moving forward, so this is an example of that.”

Senior finance major Jacob Norgord said the last time he volunteered for Serve the City was in fall 2019. He jumped at the opportunity to serve again.

“It’s pretty exciting. It’s just really cool to be able to slowly bring back things that we really look forward to doing under normal circumstances,” Norgord said. “It just helps us feel like we’re one step closer to hopefully being back to normal even if that is with masks or whatever it might be.”

Senior Christian studies major Myles Lynn, who put a border of paint tape around a set of windows at Brown’s home, said, “With our hyper-individualistic culture, we’re all so self-focused,” so it was nice to turn his focus outward to help someone else.

“I really like what he (Brown) said, that this is something he’ll go back and look on and be grateful for. I think that’s incredibly important to know that people care, to know that there’s a community out there that other people can rely on.”

Homeowners Joyce and Don Metz speak to one of the student volunteers landscaping their front yard at their home on North 39th Avenue. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

About 2 miles from Brown’s home on North 39th Avenue, Don and Joyce Metz sat outside on their porch chairs. On most days, they could watch the goings-on at the Alhambra High School softball field just across the street from their home (the proximity to schools is why the Metzes moved to the neighborhood more than four decades ago).

But today they were watching perhaps something even more exciting: new landscaping.

Volunteers shuttled wheelbarrows of dark brown rock from its origin spot to points near and far on the front lawn and side lawn. The call of the day also included the planting of a pair of mesquite trees.

“We’re going to be 79 this year," Joyce said as she sat next to the famous GCU garden gnome gifted to Operation Revival homeowners. "My husband wasn’t able to take care of the yard last summer, and it was too much for me.”

Volunteers landscape the front yard of the Metz home. (Photo by Lana Sweeten-Shults)

That’s when they contacted Habitat.

Joyce said seeing so many people up so early to help in their yard project was “wonderful” and shared how she and Don “watched GCU grow up.”

“It was just a little college with a nice chapel,” she said of Grand Canyon College before it grew into what it is now, a sprawling University with approximately 23,000 ground students. “Our neighborhood has changed a lot in 44 years.”

Tim Griffin, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor, echoed everyone’s sentiments about how good it is to be together again, outside and working on a Habitat project.

“It’s just great to be around students and to see them serving others, hanging around each other and enjoying each other’s company,” Griffin said. “I’m getting acquainted with a number of students, just hearing their stories, hearing their dreams, what they want to do when they graduate. I’m in meetings six and seven hours a day. I relish these hours.”

One of the additions to the Metz home: a mesquite tree. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Michael Lemus, who works in the Office of Spiritual Life, was part of a team of about a dozen from his office who joined in Saturday’s Serve the City projects at various homes.

“It’s really awesome to be able to bless others, even though COVID has kind of put a pause on everything,” he said. “We’re always looking for additional ways to serve our families – and our extended family outside of GCU.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: Serve the City boosts up-and-coming neighborhood

GCU Today: Lopes paint the town purple for Serve the City


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