Story and photos by Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau
Before members of the Grand Canyon University women’s basketball team thank God and break bread for a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of their inspirational coach, Nicole Powell, they helped make the holiday meal special for dozens of Arizona families. The Lopes, who returned late Saturday from a five-day road trip to North Carolina, woke up before dawn Monday to volunteer at the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance Turkey Distribution.
Like NASCAR pit crew members, they waited in line with full shopping carts of food, then approached their designated car in one of six lanes to quickly fill the trunk with turkey, bread, onions, carrots, potatoes, peas, pinto beans, canned goods, watermelon and eggs -- 12,000 dozen were donated by Hickman’s Family Farms.
As an Ahwatukee native, Powell is familiar with food insecurity in the Valley and the mission of the SMFBA.
“It is awesome to join St. Mary’s Food bank to see the incredible service that they are providing to people in the Valley,’’ she said. “Helping the walkups, the people driving up, especially at a time like this, the holidays. Everyone wants to feel special and there is nothing better at Thanksgiving than to have the community rally to make sure everybody has a good meal and enjoys the time with their families.’’
As she manned a teeming cart of food, GCU redshirt senior AJ Cephas recalled similar initiatives as a youngster in Northern California.
“Where I am from in Cali, we used to give away food to the homeless and have pancake breakfasts at my church, so I am familiar with these kinds of events and I love to do it,’’ Cephas said. “It makes me feel like I am making a difference. We are making a difference as the GCU women’s basketball team.’’
According to Powell, it is in the Lopes’ DNA.
“There are so many community things we’ve been a part of, but that is just the culture of GCU,’’ she said. “This is a priority for our entire university and our athletic department. It’s great to get out and serve and to help our athletes be a part of something bigger. It keeps things in perspective.’’
While shifting uncomfortably in a heavy boot that stretched from her sprained ankle to just below her knee, freshman Taylor Caldwell embraced that perspective.
"It’s kind of uncomfortable, but this is such a good cause that no matter the pain or discomfort, you just have to get out here and do it,’’ she said.
Looking at the long lines of cars that stretched for miles down the road, she added, “I did not know it would be this big; it is great to help people in need.’’
As people gratefully picked up their food by car or on foot, Tom Kertis, President and CEO of SMFBA, estimated that 12,000 Thanksgiving meals would be distributed between Monday and Wednesday.
“Each meal feeds eight to 10 people, so over 100,000 people will be fed over the next three days,’’ he said, noting that GCU adds to an efficient volunteer system, which moves 770 cars per hour through six distribution lanes.
“GCU is heavily involved with St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and with helping fill a need in the community,’’ he said.
Along with the women’s basketball team, women’s volleyball staff members distributed food, Thunder kept the mood light, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences pitched in via Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of the CHSS, and four members of his administration: Assistant Dean Dr. Noé Vargas, Kathleen Britton, Jacqueline Webster and Tanisha Guy.
It was the third year of participation for Elliott, who worked in the warehouse and in the distribution lanes.
“I think it's beautiful that we have enough people responding,’’ he said. “What I have noticed the most, every year, is that the number of volunteers has increased, which tells me that there is huge compassion and concern for the poor, for those who are without. Obviously, we would like to see the need reduced, but in the meantime at least we are trying to give people a blessed Thanksgiving by filling up their cars and their bags with lots of goodies.’’
GCU’s multiple-front contributions included the baseball team’s Super Saturday participation, rallying shoppers at Safeway to donate turkeys, canned goods or monetary donations, and the annual Give with a Purpose Turkey Drive aimed at employees, who were encouraged to donate time, turkeys or monetarily. The dollar-for-dollar match from both the University and Pono Construction will triple employee contributions.
“We are really grateful for that and hoping to hit a high number for the mission,’’ said GCU Community Outreach manager Debbie Accomazzo. “The monetary donation piece is for those who are unable to volunteer but would still like to contribute to the mission. Our employees are very generous and have been for many years, and this year we get to triple that generosity.’’
Carla Balague, a freshman from Barcelona, saw the end result of that generosity as each person drove off with several bags of food and a frozen turkey.
“It is amazing to see that you are helping make people happy,’’ she said.
Balague, fellow Spaniard Laura Piera, Venla Varis from Finland and Kavita Akula from India will experience an American Thanksgiving for the first time.
“It is really fun for the international athletes,’’ Powell said. “They have seen Thanksgiving in the movies, and they ask, ‘What is pumpkin pie?’ So we are going to have turkey and all the fixin's. It is a time to get together and enjoy each other’s company. This is a great group of women.’’
Between film study and practice in preparation for their Thanksgiving Showdown tournament game at noon Friday versus Indiana State at GCU Arena, Powell plans to seek a major cooking assist from A.J.’s Fine Foods. Not only is she excited to play Thanksgiving dinner hostess for her international players, she understands that her American players will likely view the day of gratitude through a new lens because of the presence of teammates from a wide variety of backdrops.
“When you have people from different backgrounds, including Americans from different parts of the country, you find that everybody celebrates Thanksgiving in a different kind of way within their families,’’ she said. “As we are a family, a basketball family, it is neat to see them share who they are with each other.’’
Cephas said, “I am looking forward to Thanksgiving with our coaches and my teammates. It will be similar to home. We can bond and relax.’’
And it is easier to take it easy knowing they've eased the burden of Arizonans in need.
Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].
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