Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
“Oooh! I like that one,” one student exclaimed, his eyes widening as he pointed to a black and white athletic shoe and gave the boot to the shoe he didn’t choose, a black Converse-styled size 5.
After wiggling his foot into the shoes to test the fit, he placed them in his bag and beamed as he exited the shoe pick-up area of the Back to School Clothing Drive’s New Clothes, New Beginnings event this week at Grand Canyon University.
Dazzled by those cool, new shoes, the student never saw what someone had scrawled in small letters on the gray tarp that covered the center’s gym floor: “God is good.”
That goodness radiated from the clothing and school-supply drive -- the largest back-to-school clothing drive in the state.
It’s one that will provide kindergartners to sixth graders from more than 260 Maricopa County schools with approximately $350 worth of merchandise each, at no cost to them. That’s about $1.8 million of clothing and supplies to get them ready for school and to remove certain barriers to their education. Research has shown that students are more likely not to attend school if they don’t have the clothing or supplies they need.
New Clothes, New Beginnings kicked off on Monday, Lopes Day, at a new location, GCU's Lopes Performance Center.
Some 5,000 Title I elementary-school children -- those whose families are at or below the federal poverty level -- will weave their way through the center during the four-day event. Also benefiting will be foster children connected to the clothing drive through such organizations as Arizona Helping Hands, Arizona Friends of Foster Families and Children First Academy.
Accompanied by a personal shopper, the children, all preselected and preregistered by their schools, stop by various departments to fill their shopping bags. They receive cool, new shoes but also socks, polo shirts, shorts, belts, underwear, backpacks filled with school supplies, and books -- perhaps “Bumpety, Dunkety, Thumpety Thump,” “Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons” or “Thunder’s Vision” by GCU’s Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, Dean of the College of Education.
The vision for New Clothes, New Beginnings is a little different this year. It is the first time the distribution event is making its home at the Lopes Performance Center since first partnering with GCU in 2013.
Previously, the event sprawled out at GCU Arena, but with the Arena occupied this year by another event, Back to School Clothing Drive relocated.
“I think the big story is how our team has made it work,” University Relations and Outreach Manager Debbie Accomazzo said. “Our Event Services team has rallied to make it as seamless a transition as it could be. That’s what’s impressed me – for GCU and Back to School Clothing Drive to work together so closely and know everything so well that we can adapt the event as needed. It really shows how invested we are.”
Volunteer Travis Swartzlander, a firefighter and paramedic for Phoenix Fire Department Station 10, said, “The thing that’s most inspiring to me is that not only is public safety involved, but the private sector, too – every kind of agency – USAA, private Christian schools, Wells Fargo. It’s inspiring to see so many people coming together for this reason … and to see the children’s smiles.
“This is probably one of my favorite parts of being a firefighter,” he added of connecting to the community, particularly the youth.
The smiles Swartzlander appreciated so much were easy to come by at the Stitches of Love department.
Stitches of Love Director Sandy Whitver perked up when someone told her about a little girl telling a reporter for a newscast: "The best stuff comes from a place called Stitches. … That was really sweet," Whitver said, smiling.
While personal shoppers take students through the other areas of this pop-up department store, it’s in the Stitches of Love area where the personal shoppers remain outside of the space. They instead hand over the reins to Stitches of Love volunteers.
About 200 volunteers create thousands of handmade items for the students throughout the year. Approximately 48,000 items were sewn, crocheted or crafted for the distribution event.
“We think Stitches of Love is the most popular department because the kids get to choose (what items they want),” said Stitches of Love volunteer Mary Cotterman.
Boys pick two shirts and five accessories, and girls pick an outfit and five accessories.
“They choose what purse goes with what outfit, what hair doodad, what jewelry. And if you look at the fabrics we choose and the prints, you’re never going to see that at the store,” Cotterman said.
Shoppers might see dinosaur, Hello Kitty and shark prints – “Sharks are popular this year,” Cotterman said – among others.
Noah Johnson, a sophomore communications major, volunteered with about 15 of her fellow women’s soccer team members.
In 2018, she manned the dental hygiene area, where schoolchildren receive free dental check-ups.
“A lot of kids don’t have access to that,” said Johnson. “Being able to do that – it’s something that makes us feel good.”
She added, “I love being able to interact with our community … and being able to help and support the community that supports us,” she said.
GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda was at the Lopes Performance Center on Monday on behalf of President Brian Mueller for Lopes Day, when GCU and Grand Canyon Education volunteers were out in full force along with Cheer and Dance, athletic and spirit teams, and Thunder.
“This is just another way we can be connected to the community and volunteer and help,” he said. “We just love to be a part of these kinds of events, especially ones that focus on youth and K-12 education, because that’s very much a part of our Five-Point Plan.” (The plan includes not just supporting K-12 outreach but also creating jobs on campus, creating jobs in west Phoenix, making neighborhoods safer and revitalizing the community.)
Accomazzo said it was important on Lopes Day to make sure “every student who comes here feels like they’re part of the Lopes family.”
The hope is that those K-12 students will one day become college students, perhaps Lopes.
Back to School Clothing Drive Executive Board Member Bonnie Smith has been volunteering for the organization for almost 20 of its 52 years (it was founded in 1967, after providing back-to-school clothing to the children of migrant families displaced by a Salt River flood). Since partnering with GCU, New Clothes, New Beginnings has “exploded” in its reach, she said, but she dreams of more.
“We want to help more,” she said as she looked back on her two decades with the group and remembered one student who asked her, incredulously, “Are those for me?” when she received her new pair of shoes.
“That always gets my heart,” Smith said.
“Stay in school: We want to make sure this is what it’s all about -- that students learn what they need to learn and make sure they find their purpose.”
And that they know God is good.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.