As party celebrates Dalla Riva, prayer reverberates

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Enrique Lucha
GCU News Bureau

This was much more than a surprise party. It was a celebration of the work of the Phoenix Rescue Mission … of the community spirit at Grand Canyon University … of the heavenly miracle being lived daily by Jesse Dalla Riva.

It was perfect.

Jesse Dalla Riva (in green shirt) and GCU President Brian Mueller hold a copy of a GCU Magazine story about him. Also at the party were College of Humanities and Social Sciences staff members (from left): Heidi Vogeney, Director; Dr. Sherman Elliott, CHSS Dean; Dr. Noe Vargas, Assistant Dean; Denise Krupp, one of his former instructors; and Dr. Jacqueline Webster, Program Psychology and Counseling Program Manager.

“This is the ultimate paycheck of what we do,” Jay Cory, President and CEO of the Rescue Mission, said moments before the guest of honor arrived Thursday afternoon at the Mission Possible Café, one week after his graduation from GCU.

And, as Cory ran down exactly what has happened to Jesse the last five years, the breadth of it once again took your breath away.

“To see someone who was on the streets, homeless, incarcerated, the whole nine yards, draining society …

“Come into the Rescue Mission, willing to be changed, to fully cooperate with our programs and services …

“Meet Christ, to come into a relationship with Christ …

“Work all the way up through the system, all through the programs, all the way through our servant leadership and our ministry training …

“Become a staff person, to get the scholarship as a partnership with Grand Canyon University …

“This is what it’s all about. The ultimate paycheck, for me, is to see someone whose life has been transformed, who is committed to being used to transform the lives of others that come behind them. This is the epitome of that. This is beautiful.”

The surprise party definitely was a surprise to Jesse Dalla Riva (in green shirt).

But it even goes beyond that.

“We have successes all the time,” he added. “We just don’t have successes that get a full scholarship to Grand Canyon University.”

The party was an ultimate success because Jesse’s co-workers pulled off the ultimate surprise.

Pam Morrison, the Rescue Mission’s Community Relationship Officer, told him she needed his assistance for a presentation about the opioid epidemic to representatives from the governor’s office.

They supposedly would gather in a meeting room at Mission Possible Cafe, the Van Buren Street restaurant the Rescue Mission opened 18 months ago with GCU’s help. Jesse was unsuspecting because he and his staff frequently hold meetings there.

“He trusts me, so he just followed me,” Morrison said.

But the staff had to clear another hurdle to pull off the surprise: They couldn’t schedule any intakes for Thursday.

GCU President Brian Mueller is gratified that Dalla Riva did so much with his GCU scholarship.

“It was pretty hard because we’re such a close-knit group,” said one of the staffers, Roland Rodriguez. “He depends on us and we depend on him. He was asking questions: ‘So why are we doing that? What’s going on?’”

It worked. The smile on his face as he walked in and saw the large crowd was priceless.

“I was shocked that all the people were here,” he said. “There are people here that I didn’t expect would be here. That was really shocking – that’s why I was so nervous. I couldn’t remember my own father-in-law’s name, I was so nervous.”

Besides a bag of GCU alumni swag, Jesse was presented with a framed copy of the recent GCU Magazine story about his accomplishments. But the heartfelt presentations of Cory, GCU President Brian Mueller and Jesse’s co-workers – culminating with a group prayer around Jesse, his wife, Blake, and their son, Jaxon – will be treasured memories, too.

Jesse's son, Jaxon, was having a blast, too.

“We are so proud of you, Jesse Dalla Riva,” Cory said. “I’m just bubbling with love and excitement and joy.”

Mueller, who granted the Rescue Mission scholarship that has changed Dalla Riva’s life, underscored the way he was accepted by GCU students but also praised his determination to graduate summa cum laude: “This so much reinforces my faith and what I believe about the God who created this. … There are so many people that fall and get an opportunity, but there aren’t a lot of people who take that opportunity and see it all the way through.”

David Kotter, owner of Integrity Capital, told of how he would take a group of people from the Rescue Mission to Scottsdale Bible Church, and when Jesse was asked what he had learned, he would recite the teachings verbatim. “Absolutely relentless and committed,” Kotter said.

Then there were Jesse’s co-workers. They didn’t mince words when they shared how they feel about the Rescue Mission’s Solutions Supervisor.

Rodriguez said Dalla Riva is the best boss he’s had in his nine years at the Rescue Mission: “He’s smart, patient, always willing to teach, follow through and get you through the hard times. He’s a great person and a great supervisor. On a day-to-day basis, he’s really fun to be around.”

Dalla Riva and his wife, Blake, shared their personal stories at the celebration.

“I look at Jesse like a brother to me, you know?” Gilbert Hernandez said. “He’s taught me everything I’ve learned in my position, working in solutions case management. I’ve learned a lot from him.

“He’s the one that pushed me forward to getting my high school diploma. He’s been a big inspiration to me. I look up to Jesse. He’s helped me out in many different ways. I needed help, and I can’t thank him enough. Later on, maybe I’ll have the opportunity to get my bachelor’s.”

Many Rescue Mission employees followed the same path as Dalla Riva. That’s part of the reason he’s such a role model.

“Coming through the program the way I did,” said Sean McKeller, “it’s great to have people you can look at and see their success and model yourself after them.”

“It was inspiring to see that, OK, if he can do it, and he can follow Christ and he can still receive blessings and just move forward in life, then I am capable of doing the same,” said Tyler Sivright. “He was just a good inspiration – great boss to have.”

And what kind of boss is he?

“Always available. Always available. Always available,” Sivright responded. “I can’t say it too much. Anybody could go up to that guy and ask for help, and he would give it to them.”

A group prayer gives thanks for what has been accomplished.

Another highlight of Thursday’s celebration illuminated why it was a cause for such reverie. Jesse and Blake went into great detail to explain the depths of their despair while living on the street before they found Christ … and each other.

“When I accepted Christ, that changed my whole life, you know? It totally transformed my way of thinking,” Jesse said. “I dove into it and I loved it and I fell in love with God. I was not like that before. I had resolved myself to being someone that had an identity that’s just a drug addict, and she (Blake) gave me a new way.”

Said Morrison, “It’s just amazing when he talks about being that young man with no self-confidence. They were both that way. To see where they are today and to know that it’s God who has done all the work, I just feel blessed to be part of their world.”

Many in the room have firsthand knowledge of what Jesse and Blake are feeling, starting with Cory.

“I’m 30 years clean from cocaine – that’s how I got involved in this,” he said. “To see somebody like Jesse – God gave him the break, gave him the opportunity. He kept walking, he kept doing it, he poured himself into it. Now God is using him in a mighty way.

“I’m assuming he’ll do my job, if he wants to, down the road.”

If that happens someday, it probably won’t be a surprise. The celebration of Jesse Dalla Riva’s accomplishments might have just begun.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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