GCU-Habitat partnership reaches major milestones

GCU students find joy in doing landscaping at one of the Lopes Go Local home-renovation projects Saturday.

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

There’s Madge Nelson, the homeowner watching Grand Canyon University students happily landscape the front of her house.

She’s even happier.

Homeowner Madge Nelson looks on as the students work on her front yard.

“This is like a miracle for me,” she says. “It really is, and I mean those words literally.”

She is told that GCU President Brian Mueller is here, too, spreading decorative gravel right along with the students.

“He IS???” she says with wide eyes.

Minutes later, Mueller is talking to her about the University’s commitment to renovate homes in its neighborhood, a quest that on Saturday passed two major milestones – 1,000 repairs to 400 homes – at its semiannual Lopes Go Local, formerly known as Serve the City.

“Words can’t express” how grateful she is, she says to him. And that’s before workers from the GCU CityServe warehouse arrive with an air fryer, outdoor lights and a fan. She is positively astonished as they carry the boxes into her house.

A GCU CityServe representative arrives with one of the items for Nelson's home.

Over there is Andrea Northup, the GCU graduate who now serves as Sponsor Relations Manager for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.

She slept well last night. First time ever before a big Habitat project with GCU. It’s because she knew the students would show up in the morning chill to enthusiastically shovel, paint and minister at all the worksites.

She is asked about the milestones.

“It’s hard to express how much that means,” she says. “Being a graduate from GCU and now being at Habitat and seeing GCU continue to live out its faith in such a way, it shows the depth of that. A lot of times it actually brings me to tears.

“GCU doesn’t just talk about its faith, it embodies it and lives it out. I don’t want to say it means the world because I feel like that’s so cliché, but it means more than words can express.”

GCU President Brian Mueller works alongside the students on the project.

Mueller has the perfect words to express the importance of this effort that has helped so many people. He is delighted to learn that Nelson went to a GCU basketball game and now watches the Lopes on television regularly. He is even happier about the way this brings students and the neighborhood together.

“For me, the most exciting thing, by far, is that students enjoy doing it,” he says. “They really enjoy helping and serving and helping improve people’s lives. It’s the joy that they get out of it that is most rewarding to me.  

“It’s one more thing that builds the community at GCU. Also, you get to know the homeowner. She just loves living in this neighborhood, but she says it has gotten so much better since we started growing. Things are on the upswing. It just feels good to be out here doing this.”

Mueller holds court with five of the students, building community that much more. Imagine what it is like for them, casually bantering with the leader of the University.

Megan Blood said Lopes Go Local is yet another example showing that GCU's commitment to the neighborhood is “legit.”

“He’s like the hands and feet of Jesus – that’s his mission statement for the school,” says junior Megan Blood, who’s majoring in supply chain and minoring in entrepreneurship and Christian studies and dreams of working for the United Nations someday. “It’s legit. His hands are serving the underserved population in the Phoenix community, which I think is really cool.”

The students enjoy talking with each other, too.

“It’s cool to meet new kids,” Blood adds. “There are a ton of freshmen and sophomores here, and I really don’t bump into underclassmen a lot. When you’re juniors and seniors, you hang out with other juniors and seniors. It’s so much fun to go out and build community with other GCU students. It’s very much a community-building experience.”

Over there, on the other side of the gravel pile, is junior Talbert Herndon. Like Blood, he works at Canyon Ventures, the University’s business startup incubator. Like Blood, he’s volunteering on a Habitat project for the first time.

Talbert Herndon had an interesting connection to GCU at his school in suburban Chicago.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, but I wouldn’t have known about it if Megan hadn’t told me,” he says.

The computer science major from Waukegan, Illinois, has shared with Mueller an ironic tidbit with another link to GCU: One of his teachers at Westlake Christian Academy in Grayslake, another Chicago suburb, was none other than Mueller’s sister.

Now Herndon volunteers regularly in the neighborhood on Mondays in an after-school program that ministers to children. Helping a local homeowner is equally satisfying.

“It bounces back,” he says. “We’re grateful that she allows us to help her. It means a lot. It really does.”

Nelson has seen firsthand how much this means. Last fall, GCU students painted her home.

“It looks real nice, doesn’t it?” she says proudly, gazing at the white bricks with an attractive blue trim.

Part of the joy of the morning for Nelson was getting to talk with the students — who enjoyed it themselves.

Behind her, six-story GCU residence halls loom in the distance. She is grateful they are there. She has lived here 28 years and was alarmed by the neighborhood’s decay before the University started expanding.

In recent years, she has watched the transformation of housing values (up 789% in the 85017 zip code since 2011) and family values (parents regularly strolling the streets with their children) thanks to GCU’s commitment to stability and safety. She remembers the drug-infested apartments that were torn down to make way for University housing.

“It was bad. It got scary. When GCU got involved and they started putting the police around here more, it’s wonderful – a big change. You see the families again. That’s what I like.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, GCU students were painting a home — happily, of course.

“You just want to see life. You don’t want to be huddled in your house and be worried about going out at night.”

Life hasn’t been easy the last few years. She became ill in 2013 and still has to undergo chemotherapy every four months. She says it’s a miracle that she was able to get off dialysis. Her spouse passed away five years ago.

She wanted to fix up her house, but those medical bills and her fixed income teamed up, determined to defeat her, until she saw the flyer detailing GCU’s partnership with Habitat, which provides renovations at a drastically reduced cost. She didn’t act on it the first time it arrived. She’s glad she picked up the phone when she received the mailer a second time.

“I couldn’t have done this,” she says. “There’s no way. I couldn’t have afforded it. Money’s tight. It’s just me.”

Habitat volunteer Les McWhirter greets the students and addresses safety precautions before they start work.

Finally, over there is Les McWhirter, who has been volunteering for Habitat projects for about a decade. He remembers when Mueller announced the Habitat partnership in 2015.

“I was quite enthused,” he says. “I saw what they were doing. I knew that they weren’t going to get into a situation that wasn’t going to be successful.”

The software architect usually volunteers for home-building projects with Habitat because he likes the satisfaction of being able to say “I’m going to build this house for these people,” but he also loves working with the students on renovations.

“It’s pretty obvious that they’re people who care, and that’s the kind of people I like to associate with.”

Another house, another GCU CityServe delivery.

Northup and her Habitat team know the feeling. The partnership with GCU is unprecedented across the U.S., and this year has meant that much more because of what came before it.

“It feels good, especially with having COVID last year, getting back into the swing of things and serving,” she says. “To see volunteers out on site, the students, faculty and staff during the year, has been so rejuvenating.

“Because that’s really where you see the heart of GCU – the heart of Habitat, too, is through the volunteers. Our team continually talks about how it’s hard to express how good it is to see people coming together, especially with what’s in the news right now. There are so many people getting torn apart, and this morning we get to see people coming together.”

There have been 1,000 of these coming-together parties. There will be many more. That says it all.

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


Related content:

GCU Today: Serve the City, CityServe brighten homeowners' day

GCU Today: In reach: GCU, Habitat climbing to 1,000-repair mark

GCU Today: GCU CityServe nears $750,000 of distributed goods

GCU Magazine: GCU CityServe wraps arms around those in need


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