GCU CityServe wraps arms around those in need

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso

Salima Marie Kalonji and her family fled the conflict that swept through her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tana Cary (left) and a team from Community Impact traveled to Buckeye, Arizona, to deliver a truckload of household goods from the GCU CityServe warehouse to Salima Kalonji (right), a refugee from Congo.

Armed gunmen had shot and killed her husband, and in the chaos that followed, she grabbed two of her children. Only two of her six children.

She did not know where the others were. But like her, they scattered that harrowing day in 2007.

Kalonji found safety in neighboring Uganda, where she lived as a refugee for eight years before following her children to Phoenix. Five of her six children found refuge in America, as she did. It’s where she has worked two and sometimes three jobs, putting in a grueling 80 to 100 hours a week.

“It was very hard. I was not sleeping. I was focusing,” said Kalonji, resolutely. “In my heart, I want to have a house.

That was the dream, and Kalonji, who lived for a time with one of her children and then in government housing, finally realized her dream just six years after she arrived in America. In September, she bought a home in Buckeye, 35 miles west of Phoenix, surrounded by the bucolic quiet of Arizona desert farmland that’s such a contrast to the violence she lived through in her homeland.

It was where Community Impact volunteers were busy unloading a truck packed full of household items – an air fryer, coffee maker, throw rug, clock, picture frames, a mirror. They wanted to fill Kalonji’s house, which was mostly empty except for living room furniture.

“We have a lot more to bring in for you,” one of the volunteers, Paige McMahon, said to Kalonji, who gratefully welcomed everyone into her home.

“I thank God for everything,” she told them, raising her hands in the air. “I thank God I have friends who take care of us.”

Of the home she worked so hard for, she said, “For me, it’s a miracle.”

Like-minded partners

It’s a miracle that might not have made it that last mile without Grand Canyon University.

Just the day before, the household goods that Community Impact delivered to Kalonji sat on shelves in the campus’ CityServe HUB, a distribution center with the equivalent of nearly 35,000 square feet tucked into a corner at the University’s 27th Avenue business complex. (See slideshow here.)

GCU student volunteers sort a delivery. 

The warehouse serves as a repository for hundreds of in-kind household goods, everything from furniture to microwaves, kayaks, beauty supplies and bicycles from national retailers such as Amazon, Costco, Home Depot and Lowe’s – goods that otherwise might have been buried in landfills because they were returned or were last season’s model or for other reasons.

Thanks to CityServe, they will go to families in need. People like Kalonji.

When Dave Donaldson co-founded the nonprofit with Wendell Vinson in Bakersfield, California, in 2017, he set his sights on welcoming a like-minded university to CityServe. The collaborative network of churches and community service groups mobilizes, trains and equips people so they can better do compassionate work in the community.

After meeting GCU President Brian Mueller in 2020, Donaldson knew he had found that university.

Mueller often speaks of GCU uplifting immigrants and refugees in its west Phoenix neighborhood, where 45 languages are spoken within a 5-mile radius. He speaks of the University being a force for good and for transformative change in the community through its five-point plan.

That plan includes initiatives such as GCU’s partnership with Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona to renovate homes in the area and programs such as the Students Inspiring Students neighborhood scholarship to improve the community through education. Mueller emphasizes being a catalyst for human flourishing. “After our first meeting, I told my wife, ‘Brian is the real deal and someone I want to become close to and build a university-based model of compassion with that will change the world,’” Donaldson said.

Donaldson sees young people as emerging leaders of this movement of kindness and compassion that’s the hallmark of CityServe, and he sees GCU’s students as bringing those ideas back home with them once they graduate.

“The youth, they’re not only our future, but in many ways, our role model for compassionate evangelism,” Donaldson said. “This is a model for other universities around the globe to equip and mobilize students to meet the needs of their neighbors, but at the same time, to train them so that when they return to their homes, that they’re a catalyst for getting their churches more engaged with the brokenness in their own backyard.”

The GCU CityServe HUB receives in-kind goods from major retailers that are then delivered to those in need.

CityServe first partnered with GCU to distribute food to families in need during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Distribution program. By the time the program ended in May, the University had disbursed almost 20,000 boxes of food – 17 Shamrock Farms truckloads – to 40 schools, churches and community groups that, in turn, delivered that food to those in need.

But that was just the prelude of the symphony to come.

The organizations announced, just as Farmers to Families wrapped up, the next step in the partnership – for GCU to become CityServe’s first university HUB.

In just three months, the University converted a fitness center into its CityServe HUB warehouse, where one truckload of household goods per week has been delivered to the facility since it started receiving goods in August.

The expectation is that those deliveries will ramp up to two truckloads per week by November.

Within two months, the GCU CityServe staff anticipates 30,000 pounds of household goods worth about $50,000 arriving at the warehouse every week.

Those goods will be ready to make it into the hands of those in need thanks to the University’s Point of Distribution (POD) partners, which will pick up the items and deliver them to those families.

GCU CityServe Executive Director Jay Cory said the University hopes to partner with 100 churches and community organizations throughout Arizona.

“I have meetings every day to sign up PODs,” GCU CityServe Executive Director Jay Cory said from his office in the warehouse, a mini Costco of sorts where household goods can be stacked on orange metal shelves three levels high.

Just some of those points of distribution: Thrive Arizona, North Phoenix Baptist Church, Harvest Compassion Center, the Arizona Justice Center and Iglesia De Dios En Cristo (the Church of God in Christ).

More are added every day.

He and the staff train the PODs on the network’s three apps: the HUB and POD apps, as well as the HERO Network app, which allows volunteers to report and track distributions.

The University wants to build its warehouse to 100,000 square feet and extend its POD system to 100 churches and community service organizations across Arizona.

“We came here 13 years ago and we thought we had a plan, but who could have guessed the plan would have turned out like this?” Mueller said of GCU CityServe, its most overarching, ambitious, sweeping initiative in the scope of its missional work in the community.

The work already includes community-transforming partnerships in the Canyon Corridor with not just Habitat for Humanity but the Phoenix Police Department, nearby public schools and more.

“Did we put ourselves here? We didn’t put ourselves here. God put us here,” Mueller said of the University’s place in west Phoenix, where it has thrived with approximately 23,500 ground students and beautiful residence halls and amenities.

“He put us here, and He blessed us incredibly. What He expects is for us to build this neighborhood as a result.”

But while GCU has been focused on uplifting and transforming its neighborhood, with CityServe, “we want to serve the state, from as far north as the Native American reservations, west to Yuma and south to Tucson,” Mueller said.

Serving Arizona

GCU CityServe is already doing just that.

Just two weeks after the HUB officially opened, Community Impact volunteers helped fill a retooled bus with items that the Palm Valley Church mission team, in partnership with Arizona Reservation Ministries, delivered to the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Globe, about 95 miles from the University.

The bus, spruced up with a new generator to power its air conditioner, is part of a mobile children’s ministry. It’s loaded with backpacks in July, before the start of school, but on this Saturday, volunteers packed the bus with household goods from the GCU CityServe HUB.

Many of the residents asked for bug zappers and solar landscape lights since many of the homes on the reservation have limited electricity.

Community Impact, among GCU CityServe’s growing list of POD partners, stepped up to find those items.

“Our overall mission is to be able to get resources to families in need, and a lot of times that’s partnering with the organizations that have the resources, like GCU CityServe,” said Paige McMahon, POD coordinator for Community Impact.

McMahon, whose two sons are GCU students, was at the HUB with the organization’s executive director, Rusty Hood, to find items for Kalonji and the San Carlos Apache Reservation. She was amazed when HUB Manager Nathan Cooper needed less than a week to find the requested solar lights and bug zappers along with small appliances, kitchenware, a playpen, a child safety gate and other items.

“One lady – it was amazing – she asked if she could have that gate because she had a 1-year-old baby at her home. It was great that it went to someone who really needed it,” said trip leader Matt Salas, one of CityServe’s HEROs – volunteers who deliver HUB goods. And there is a lot of need for basic items on the reservation.

“It’s so crazy,” Salas said of this kind of poverty existing in America. “It’s right here in our state.”

Nicolee Thompson, Executive Director of Harvest Compassion Center, sees that kind of poverty, too, right in the center’s backyard in Maryvale, just two blocks from the University.

The GCU CityServe warehouse contains everything from furniture to beauty supplies.

Her nonprofit has re-imagined the food and clothing bank experience, elevating it to add to the dignity of its clients.

That means one-stop-shop minimarts dubbed “clothing boutiques,” personal shoppers at those boutiques, full-size hygiene items, and laundered and ironed clothes at the boutiques to make sure those items are pristine.

Harvest Compassion already has used the GCU CityServe HUB to help stock its boutiques with those full-size hygiene items, and volunteers requested children’s toys. One of the first items it picked up from the HUB didn’t last long at the boutique.

“It was the Lin family. Their little boy, who is 6 years old, went home with that scooter. The scooter was the first item we got. It found a home within an afternoon,” Thompson said.

Steve Vogel, President of Thrive Arizona, shared the story of one of the organization’s clients, a single mom recently reunited with her three children, who were in foster care.

Thrive Arizona volunteers stopped by GCU CityServe to help her furnish a space for the family.

“Receiving household items like this beautiful sofa was the last step for her to be reunified with her children from foster care,” Vogel said.

Minette Klenner, an instructional coach at Empower College Prep, just across Interstate 17 from the University, met with Cory recently. He wanted to share what the program is all about.

“They’ve chosen our school, not necessarily as a POD, but as a support,” said Klenner.

The GCU CityServe HUB gifted a bicycle to Empower College Prep seventh grade math teacher Zhibo Zhang to make it easier for him to get to work.

That’s when she spotted a few bikes on one of the warehouse aisles. She told Cory about a teacher at Empower, seventh grade math teacher Zhibo Zhang, who didn’t have transportation to get to and from school.

CityServe didn’t hesitate to donate a bike. “I felt pretty excited because she (Klenner) told me last week I have this opportunity to have a new bike,” said Zhang. As a teacher, he wants to get to know the neighborhood – and his students – better. “Just think about how far I can go. When I move around, it’s like a circle. But with this bike, the circle is going to be way bigger.” 

Turning back time

GCU is growing its circle, too, beyond the borders of its west Phoenix neighborhood and amplifying what it has been doing all along in its mission to transform the community.

Barry Meguiar, President of Meguiar Wax and a CityServe advisor, called it a new model, and its distribution system of HUBs, PODs and HEROs is visionary in that way.

CityServe advisor Barry Meguiar at the GCU CityServe HUB open house in September said helping the lost find their way will require going beyond the walls of a church.

But in many ways, CityServe is returning to its roots.

The church once was the center of the community, Cory said, but it backed away from its place in the community when the government started to fill that role.

“A hundred years ago, that missionary or that local church, they knew everybody in the neighborhood by name. They knew if Mrs. Smith was struggling or if Maria was hurting – they knew the needs and they came together and helped meet the needs,” Cory said.

“We’re going back to that. We’re going back to knowing our community, understanding our community, building relationships in our community and ministering to the needs of people that are hurting. That’s more church than going into a building.”

As Mueller said at the GCU CityServe open house in September, “My biggest hope with all of this is that you guys are going to do church a lot better than we did church,” and for GCU, a Christian university, doing church isn’t something that can be separated from the classroom.

“If you’re a Christian, your life is a ministry, whether you do PR, whether you write stories, whether you preach on Sunday, whether you teach engineering,” Cory said. “The academic does not precede the spiritual; the spiritual precedes the academic.

“So what we’re doing – reading, writing, ’rithmetic – we’re teaching it from a Christian worldview. What we’re really doing is being even more consistent with who we really are.”

And who GCU is extends beyond the distribution of things.

The next movement in the symphony of compassion that is GCU CityServe is to get to know the people the University is serving. Know their needs, their hopes, their dreams.

Mueller has challenged the University’s colleges to come up with ways to transform the community beyond the delivery of goods.

Tana Cary (left) and Salima Kalonji pause for a selfie after Community Impact delivered a truckload of household goods from the GCU CityServe HUB to Kalonji's new home.

Those goods are the introduction to a deeper conversation as the University gets to know the community and moves into this second phase of compassionate service to its neighbors.

It’s when the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions might set up a health care clinic in the community, the
College of Humanities and Social Sciences might provide mental health services and the Colangelo College of Business could advise local businesses in the neighborhood.

Tapping into the energy of its students, GCU wants to access that human potential and spark the human flourishing Mueller envisions.

“What we’re instilling in the minds of students, both ground and online, is the basic truth of, life is not all about you,” Cory said.

Salima Kalonji knows that message well. Her children tell her that she has achieved her goal. It’s time to rest.

But she has other thoughts.

She is working one job right now, but to support her family and her church group, she wants a second job.

“She wants to foster children. She still sends money back to family. She still sends money to the church in Uganda. If she has something, she’s going to give it to someone,” said Kalonji’s friend, Community Impact volunteer and GCU CityServe HERO Tana Cary.

It’s at the core of GCU CityServe. “If you’re a Christian, this is about service to others,” Jay Cory said. “Who’s going to share that message if it’s not GCU?”

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


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