Back-to-School Clothing Drive back at GCU

Volunteer Donna Lee helps Buckeye Elementary School student Natalie Medina pick out a new outfit during the Back-to-School Clothing Drive's distribution event July 18-20 in GCU Arena. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Wearing a pink bow in her hair and a pink-and-white plaid shirt, Buckeye Elementary School second-grader Natalie Medina leaves no doubt that pink is her signature color.

So it was no surprise what drew her in at the Stitches of Love pop-up boutique at the Back-to-School Clothing Drive’s New Clothes = New Beginnings distribution. After passing on several outfits, Medina walked out with a big smile and a zebra-patterned skirt accented in pink.

It’s a scene that in 2020 and 2021 couldn’t have played out as it did recently at Grand Canyon University Arena, where the three-day New Clothes = New Beginnings returned in person after two summers away from the campus during COVID-19.

In those two summers, the global pandemic forced the Back-to-School Clothing Drive staff to pivot.

Instead of hundreds of students, teachers and volunteers packing into the Arena, the staff adapted by helming smaller events, such as handing out uniforms, school-supply-loaded backpacks and clothing to Luke Air Force Base families at Gila River Arena. And the organization shipped clothing and supplies to schools just before the start of the academic year.

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, the nonprofit delivered supplies for 2,000 students to Maricopa County Title I schools, which serve a high percentage of students from low-income families. It also delivered supplies to 600 children in foster care and 400 children who may have been homeless or transitioning out of homelessness.

Elementary school students try on new shoes during the Back-to-School Clothing Drive distribution. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Buckeye Elementary School counselor Sherry Saylor, who accompanied 30 of her school’s students to GCU, said the Back-to-School Clothing Drive staff and volunteers in 2021 boxed up the uniforms and supplies they usually disburse on the GCU campus and passed them out at the school.

“We’re so appreciative they didn’t drop the program, because backpacks break all year,” Saylor said of that uncertain time during the pandemic, when so many families were struggling.

Still, delivering those uniforms, shoes and backpacks at those smaller events didn’t evoke quite the same feelings as all the excitement of distribution day at GCU Arena, when busload after busload of children fill the space.

“It’s good to be back,” said retired school administrator and GCU Trustee Dr. Jim Rice, affectionately known as “the shoe guy” since you’ll often find him helming the event’s shoe department and helping students get fitted for new shoes. “You just get a lot of energy when the kids come through.”

During the distribution July 18-20, almost 4,000 preregistered elementary school students from about 140 schools weaved their way through the Arena.

They’re assigned a personal shopper who accompanies them as they stop in different departments to pick up polo shirts, shorts, a backpack filled with school supplies, a pair of sneakers, several pairs of socks and underwear, a belt, books, a dental hygiene kit and handmade clothing and accessories.

One of those personal shoppers, GCU business student Brooke Castillo, waited outside the Stitches of Love boutique for the students she was assigned to as they shopped for their unique handcrafted item.

"What stays with me is when a student says, 'What do you mean it's brand new? ... They're so used to hand-me-downs. But everything HAS to be brand new because these kids deserve brand new."

Sandy Whitver, Stitches of Love coordinator

“When they see the accessories, they’re so excited,” said Castillo, who volunteered with about 50 of her co-workers from Wells Fargo. “I just love helping children – anybody, really."

The Stitches of Love shop is where students can pick out an item or two among the 50,000 items that 125 volunteers sew, craft, crochet and knit throughout the year, exclusively for the Back-to-School Clothing Drive’s annual July distribution.

Stitches of Love coordinator Sandy Whitver remembers one student one year who really liked a dress, but her mom said it would be better for her to have shorts and a top because they lived in their car.

“What stays with me is when a student says, ‘What do you mean it’s brand new?’… They’re so used to hand-me-downs. But everything has to be brand new,” Whitver said decidedly of what students receive, “because these kids deserve brand new.”

Not only do students get to shop for new clothing at the distribution event, but they also pick up books, such as “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White and “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

And they stop by the dental area, where volunteers use giant toothbrushes and sets of model teeth to show participants how to properly brush. The elementary school students also perused the kid jokes on the walls: “Why did the picture go to jail?” The answer: “It was framed.”

The young participants visit with dental school students, such as Shaudee Badie, Kacee Ginsbach and Chi Le, all in their second year at Midwestern University.

Students also pick out a few books.

“It gives us the opportunity to learn patient interaction,” said Badie, who asked the elementary schoolers if they brush and floss their teeth every day.

The dental school students also screen the children and, if they see any problems, refer them to dental clinics.

Another GCU student, third-year nursing major Samantha Moreno, has been volunteering at the distribution event since she was 14 years old, thanks to her uncle, John Baca, who has been a Back-to-School Clothing Drive volunteer for 28 years.

Moreno now works as the nonprofit’s program assistant, though at this year’s distribution she was one of the first faces students saw at New Clothes = New Beginnings after students checked in and she led them to a seated waiting area in the Arena.

GCU nursing student Samantha Moreno has been volunteering for the Back-to-School Clothing Drive since she was 14 years old.

“Two years away from the kids – that made me sad,” said Moreno. So to be back at GCU and see how happy a new pair of shoes or a new knitted hat makes them, “It makes it all worthwhile.”

What also makes it worthwhile is how the event brings the community together.

“It’s the friendships you make,” Whitver said of meeting with fellow seamstresses who meet for “sew days” at various locations and teach sewing to others.

Rice said he loves not only knowing families in need are getting help, but, for him, “It’s the volunteers that make this thing so successful.”

Volunteers like John Baca, whose favorite part of the event is the last day, he said, “When you know you’ve done all you could.”

It’s something Natalie Medina knows as she shopped with her brother, Heber. With her new zebra-and-pink patterned skirt in her shopping bag, she is clear about what her favorite part of the Back-to-School Clothing Drive distribution is as she clearly sees the bigger picture and, ultimately, what all the clothes and school supplies mean: “Going to school.”

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


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when He appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel — I will celebrate before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6:21)

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