Basketball players dig return of Habitat projects

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

For Grand Canyon University students and staff, the full return to community service projects is like welcoming back an old friend.

GCU basketball player Jovan Blacksher Jr. (center) and his teammates were hard at work Saturday morning in the first Habitat for Humanity project of the academic year.

For the GCU men’s basketball team, it’s an opportunity for new friends to get to know each other even better.

Either way, it made for a big day Saturday at the first Habitat for Humanity home improvement of the year, manned mostly by basketball players who treated it as joyfully as a 30-point victory.

“It’s the heartbeat of the University, and we want to embrace that as a program,” said Ryne Lightfoot, the team’s Director of Player Development.

But there’s more to it than that, he quickly added:

“For our guys to get out here and serve right out in our community, close by, I think it’s a great lesson for them to learn. I’ve heard them say multiple times, ‘Man, this has motivated me to continue to work hard at what I do and perfect my craft.’ At the same time, it gives them the attitude that there’s stuff out there that’s bigger than basketball.

“For them, to come out here at 6 o’clock in the morning, it’s a big investment for them. They’re college kids and want to have a Friday night as much as anybody else. For them to wake up and serve in the community, it’s pretty special for them.”

Andrea Northup, Sponsor Relations Manager for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, speaks to the group before the work begins.

Clearly, it’s special to people across the University. Andrea Northup, a GCU graduate in her fifth year as Habitat’s Sponsor Relations Manager, said every project – one a month for students, two a month for staff – has been spoken for through the end of the calendar year. This comes after a year of curtailed projects and curtailed numbers of people working on those projects.

“It was a long time coming,” she said. “While we still were grateful we were able to serve families, having staff and students out again, it emphasizes that value of bringing people together, which is what we missed last year.

“You can serve families, which is great. But when you see a whole group of volunteers show up at a house, the impact that makes, you just can’t put it into words.”

And, like Lightfoot, she sees a reason to do it behind the obvious.

“I think, if anything, that you don’t know how good it is until it’s gone,” she said. “And so with people being excited to come back out, I didn’t realize how good it is to give back to the community until we couldn’t do it anymore.”

Ryne Lightfoot (left), Director of Player Development for the men's basketball team, watches Raef Gerdes lay down plastic for the yard project.

The basketball players knew how good they had it while shoveling gravel Saturday even though one of them, Sean Miller-Moore, said he’d rather do five suicides (a drill where they run to the opposite end of the court and back) rather than yardwork.

They have come together in various ways while spending the last few months on campus. That includes giving up pizza in advance of Friday’s Midnight Madness, the official start of preseason practices.

“Everyone just thinks that we’re out here playing basketball, but, honestly, we try to come together whenever we can, whether it’s stuff like this or giving up pizza for Midnight Madness,” Miller-Moore said.

“It’s more working together – joking around but getting the job done at the same time. We can use this to get to know each other more and see how each of us works besides basketball. It translates to the court.”

None of them outworked Lightfoot, who was constantly in motion as they distributed the decorated stones across the yard. It evoked memories of his childhood in rural Indiana. "I grew up with parents that believed in hard work," he said. "My brother and I were their landscaping crew."

A new feature at Habitat projects is student leaders in gold shirts. Jayden Stone fist bumps them during Saturday's work.

And for the basketball players, there was more to it than just the work.

"You see their personalities form here," Lightfoot said. "You see the guys that are the leaders, and they step up and get in a leadership role. Then you see other guys that naturally are facilitators, behind-the-scenes guys – they find a role and they attack it, very similar to what you see in basketball."

There was another team on hand Saturday – the new student leaders for Habitat projects (three from Local Outreach, one from Global Outreach). Skylar Warnock, Maddy Weiss, Sophie Fortunato and Derrek Sterken used to be among the students doing the labor; now they’ll be leading.

But the main thing is to get back to normal.

“Just to be able to be back here and be able to serve the community – I missed that more than the Habitat builds because we couldn’t serve at all last year. It was really a bummer,” Sterken said.

Is that a reason why he came to GCU?

Dima Zdor (left) and Aidan Igiehorn plow into the hill of stones.

“Yeah, and now it’s one of my favorite reasons why I’m here – the community aspect and the opportunities to be a servant leader,” he responded. “It’s such a cool community.”

It’s a community that already has served more than 350 unique families, which means GCU should reach 400 sometime in the next few months. More than 900 repairs have been completed via 26,000-plus volunteer hours.

The excitement already is building for Serve the City on Nov. 6, but the return to Habitat normalcy made Saturday the first of many special days.

“It feels so good,” Northup said. “Exhausting, but good. I was telling somebody else about that. I was like, ‘There’s work where you come home feeling exhausted, but then there’s work where you come home feeling filled.’”

The heart never stopped beating, even during the pandemic. But it’s stronger than ever.

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

When the work was done, there were two happy homeowners and a group that was delighted to contribute.


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU students Serve the City by building a garden

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

GCU Magazine: Serve the City, CityServe: the magic of community 


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