GCU baseball helps food bank get a (turkey) leg up

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau

The team collected 192 turkeys and more than $2,027.

It wasn’t so much a tale of two cities as it was a tale of 100 turkeys Saturday at the Safeway on 32nd Street and East Camelback Road.

That was where about 25 Grand Canyon University baseball team players donned turkey hats, erupted into cheers and toted signs that declared, “Don’t be a nerd; donate a bird,” while seeking donations for St. Mary’s Food Bank.

For the eighth year, the team has bolted off the baseball diamond and firmly planted their feet at one of the locations for the food bank’s Super Saturday event. It’s when hundreds of volunteers fan out across 21 locations around the Valley to collect turkeys, canned goods and monetary donations before the organization’s big turkey distribution today through Wednesday.

Here’s how the tale of the 100 turkeys unfolded.

Paul and Rocio heard about the St. Mary's Thanksgiving food drive on the news and donated 100 turkeys. (Photo by Debbie Accomazzo)

It was toward the end of the team’s volunteer shift when a couple, Paul and Rocio (they did not want to give their last names), dropped by. They heard about the fundraiser on the radio and knew what they wanted to do.

“The couple was set on donating 100 turkeys,” said Kaitlyn Nicol, GCU Community Relations Associate.

Safeway employees brought out pallets of turkeys that the team helped load onto the St. Mary’s Food Bank truck.

The couple said they had been one of those families in need. Because they received such generosity, they wanted to do the same.

“They made sure they had a part in making a difference this Thanksgiving,” Nicol said.

By the end of their shift, the baseball team amassed 192 turkeys, a little more than $2,027 and generous donations of peanut butter, rice, pasta, canned fruit, canned vegetables, beans and more.

GCU baseball at Super Saturday kicked off the University’s Give with Purpose holiday employee giving campaign (read more about the campaign here), which benefits the food bank at a crucial time.

“Seventy percent of our food intake comes from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31,” said John Ginty, a longtime St. Mary’s Food Bank board member on site for Super Saturday.

The holidays are always go-time for the food bank. Its number of clients doubled and, at one point, tripled, when the pandemic first hit Arizona in the spring. At the same time, the organization saw a decline of its volunteer base by 80%.

Baseball coach Andy Stankiewicz gets into the turkey action.

So in reality, it’s been go-time since the spring, with the organization operating at maximum capacity since then.

“The demand is great (this year) due to a number of people being furloughed and laid off,” Ginty said. “… Last year, through our food drive that we do Monday to Wednesday (before Thanksgiving), we gave away pretty close to about 60,000 turkeys; our goal is far greater than that this year.”

It’s why it was even more important to continue to man Super Saturday, said baseball coach Andy Stankiewicz.

“It’s the appropriate thing to do,” he said of his players, who were all outside wearing masks and observing COVID-19 safety protocols. “We wanted to do it. … It’s something that’s important to the program and it’s something that’s important to our university.”

Third baseman and outfielder Ryland Zaborowski, a freshman from Gilbert, Ariz., studying sports management and marketing, spoke on Saturday about his teammates and how they’ve bonded in such a short time, even during a pandemic.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of guys very well very fast,” he said, and thinks that kind of camaraderie and teamwork is something that is not just important when you’re part of a baseball team, but when you’re part of a community, too.

“That’s our ultimate goal as a team,” he said of building community. “We like giving back – helping families out.”

Dustin Crenshaw, a freshman sports management major and middle infielder from Chandler, Ariz., said one of his family’s holiday traditions is doing what the baseball team did at Super Saturday.

How to get shoppers to donate? Don a few festive hats, say senior Brock Burton (left) and sophomore Josh Buckley.

“We like to go to the church and help load turkeys or donate a box (of food) at least,” said Crenshaw, who realizes how great the need is right now. “A lot of people are struggling, so it’s really important that we’re getting out here and helping.”

GCU baseball alumnus Matt Haggerty, who has returned to the program as a graduate assistant this year, remembers volunteering for Super Saturday himself when he was a player.

“It’s cool to see the guys with the turkey hats cheering and excited. The guys look forward to it every year, and they’re competitive with it, too,” he said.

GCU baseball volunteer assistant coach Paul Panaccione, also a GCU baseball alumnus, loved seeing the tradition he relished continue to be embraced by the players who have come after him.

“It’s cool to see the connection with the public and the energy we bring … especially in times like now. It’s cool to know we can still find a way to make a difference and put a smile on people’s faces and feed a family.”

This was the second time catcher Josh Buckley, a sophomore communications major, volunteered for Super Saturday.

How exactly did the team try to maximize its donations potential?

“It’s definitely the wear,” said Buckley with a laugh. “It’s the (turkey and Pilgrim) hats and encouraging them (shoppers) with the cowbells. You have to be loud and let them know what we’re all about.”

And GCU baseball was definitely loud.

When a shopper donated money, the team rattled the cowbells --- clink-clank-clink-clank!!!! – hooted and hollered and made a little noise to draw attention to the cause.

Junior Jonny Weaver receives a turkey for St. Mary's. This is the eighth year the team has volunteered on Super Saturday.

“We actually just got a HUGE 10-bomb of turkeys. So it’s going pretty good. It’s the biggest one (turkey donation) so far,” said Buckley, about an hour before the 100-turkey donation and just a little before Safeway shopper Steve Serrano donated money into the collection bucket.

“The holidays remind you that there’s people in need – not just this time of year, but it’s all year,” Serrano said as driver Darryl Novak prepared to load the St. Mary’s Food Bank truck.

He loves getting to know such generous people. But even more than that, “It’s gratifying to be able to help people. It’s a great organization to work for. That’s why I’ve been here for 15 years.”

And it’s why GCU  baseball wanted to once again spend the Saturday before Thanksgiving doing what it has done for eight years – spiritedly collecting turkeys for St. Mary’s.

Said Stankiewicz, “That’s kind of the heartbeat of GCU -- to be service-oriented and be part of the community.”

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


To donate To St. Mary's, click here.


Related content:

GCU Today: Feather in GCU’s baseball cap – Super Saturday

GCU Today: Why Give with Purpose is more important than ever


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Jesus taught his disciples, saying: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

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