Move-In volunteers bring a welcoming warmth

From left, Stephanie Johnston, Joshua Larson and Sarah Barber show off their Local Outreach bucket hats in preparation for Welcome Crew Move-In efforts.

Story and photos by Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

When Dr. Julie Nelson brought her daughter, Karley, from their Utah home to Grand Canyon University 10 years ago, she was struck by the friendly, caring atmosphere on campus. On Friday, she hopes to replicate that atmosphere in a volunteer effort that begins at 6 a.m. The psychology professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences will work alongside faculty, staff and student leaders to move in the Welcome Crew, the group of students who in turn will move in their peers next week.  

Dr. Julie Nelson looks forward to meeting students in class AFTER she helps move them in.

“The part of my job that I love the most is connecting with students,’’ Nelson said. “And so understanding their life and their situation is part of making that connection. It is important to me. I genuinely care about my students and I want to engage with them so I can mentor them for their best success, and that begins with love and service, I think.’’

Nelson, who teaches health psychology and probability and statistics, among other classes, envisions making connections with students who remember her efforts to ease Move-In by swarming their cars, unloading the contents onto speed pack carts and gently placing them inside their residence halls and apartments.

“I want to help,’’ said Nelson, who has taught at GCU since 2011, one year after her soccer-playing daughter graduated. “I really love the sense of community here.’’

Dennis Sorensen and Bill Yearnd represent another thread in the fabric of Lopes’ Move-In Community. For the past six years, they have provided water, Gatorade and snacks to adult volunteers such as Nelson. The eyes of thirsty volunteers light up when they see the “water boys” approaching in their golf cart.

“We have fun,’’ Sorensen said.  “When we drive around a corner, their faces will light up and they will smile, telling us we’re just in time. ‘’

Sorensen drives and Yearnd handles the map and the schedule, navigating through tight areas.

“Sometimes I have to drive backward. It is a challenge,’’ Sorensen said.

To stay on the move, traversing all areas of campus, the pair developed hand signals.

Bill Yearnd (left) and Dennis Sorensen, the "water boys," are a welcome sight for thirsty Move-In volunteers.

“Since we know the people we are delivering water for, we have a signal,’’ Sorensen said. “We don’t stop if they put a thumbs up. It means they don’t need a drink. If they put their hands up, they need water.’’

As the campus has grown, so have their responsibilities. Initially, they volunteered for three days; now they help for six days, beginning Friday and continuing Monday through Aug. 24.

They communicate with Welcome Programs staff via walkie talkie and regularly leave campus to provide sustenance for police officers and security working on perimeter streets.

The pair, who have combined for 22 years working for the University in business analytics, also provide relief for volunteers on traffic duty who need an occasional break.

“We meet a lot of fellow employees, and it is fun to see the kids -- over the years we meet many kids,’’ Yearnd said. “They always thank us; every kid will say thank you every time. They do not take us for granted. It makes you feel good that you are contributing to this mass influx of humanity.’’

No job is too messy for the “water boys." They even pick up trash since some of the volunteers cannot abandon their posts to toss out Gatorade bottles or snack wrappers.

“It shows that here’s a couple of adults willing to pick up trash, that are willing to service other people, students, as well as adults,’’ Yearnd said.

In the spirit of servant leadership embraced by GCU, the pair makes decisions on the fly. For example, they ran across a grandparent who was trying to make a lengthy walk in the heat. Yearnd gave grandma his seat and waited patiently in the shade while Sorensen delivered her across campus to her grandson.

Colorful bandanas will keep the perspiration off the faces of volunteers.

Along with several hundred employees lending a hand at Move-In, members of the Thundering Heard Pep Band, Cheer, Dance, the Havocs and women’s softball, basketball, volleyball, beach volleyball and baseball teams are volunteering along with student leaders from various clubs and organizations. 

For senior Sarah Barber, lending a hand is part of the GCU freshman-to-senior cycle of college.

“When I was a freshman I loved having people come and move me in, so I want to give back what they gave to me, and it is so fun,’’ she said.

Senior Joshua Larson also wants to start the newcomers on a positive vibe.

“GCU is one big family; it is a big community,’’ he said. “So first impressions are really important. Seeing smiling faces and happy kids when you move in makes you feel right at home right off the get go. Because it is a big thing moving into college for the first time.’’’

Just last year Stephanie Johnston was waiting in the line of cars, anxious to meet her roommates.

“I just remember coming in as a freshman and being so scared and thinking, ‘What am I doing on this big campus?’" she said. "I know that seeing a warm welcoming smile is helpful. And it would not be easy bringing your stuff up by yourself, so we are making it super easy on the families.’’     

In an ongoing effort to improve upon one of the greatest college transition traditions, Charity Norman, Director of Welcome Programs, has devised a few ways to show appreciation for the growing number of students who volunteer for the Welcome Crew. Along with an appreciation dinner, which was added last year, they will have a pool party and a movie night.

Stickers differentiate among volunteer types.

“It’s just us having another opportunity to say thank you and get excited for Welcome Week and we’re real excited you decided to join us,’’ said Norman who expects 1,100 student volunteers, 300 faculty and staff volunteers, and 18 alumni.

The student Move-In volunteers are scheduled to attend a training session Saturday designed to emphasize the procedures of carefully moving items from car to room without loss or breakage while infusing them in the welcoming culture of GCU.

“About half of the volunteers are sophomores, so they had the Move-In experience just last year,’’ Norman said. “What I’ve learned over the years is that the volunteers get very much a pay-it-forward kind of attitude. They think, ‘This was done for me, so I am going to do it for those who come after me.’  So half of our volunteers just experienced it last year and the other half just enjoy being on Welcome Crew. They get to be the first ones on campus, and then they get to welcome in all of the new people.’’

The training session includes activities and games to increase the familiarity within volunteer groups and to organically develop leaders. For the first time, Norman will have a training co-host, Erik Nelsen, the New Student Programs coordinator. Specifically for Welcome Week, as the volunteers coordinator, Nelsen has prepared a gift package.

“We are trying to give volunteers things that make them feel special,’’ Nelsen said. “Everyone gets a fanny pack, a bandana and a T-shirt. We try to be innovative with the T-shirt and make it a keepsake, so this year’s shirt is exceptionally soft and comfortable.’’

To differentiate staff and faculty from students, Nelsen ordered special stickers for staff and faculty to wear on their T-shirts.

“We want the families to see, oh hey, there’s a faculty member,’’ he said. “It is pretty neat to have a professor move you into your residence hall.’’

Indeed it is -- and it's neat for the professors as well.

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].


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