Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Dr. Cecilia Maes has heard the stories firsthand: The family of 10 that lost its home in a fire and squeezed into a relative’s small apartment, all under the shadow of a pandemic. Or the grandmother who suddenly found herself raising five grandchildren.
They cried when they received an unexpected gift: Boxes of food from the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program distributed by Grand Canyon University and partner CityServe.
“I could tell you countless stories,” said Maes, Assistant Superintendent of District Operations for the Cartwright School District.
Lizz Rodriguez is another one of those countless stories.
After being laid off from her customer service job during the pandemic, it became increasingly difficult to put food on the table for a family of six, including four children ages 2 to 7.
“There have been times I’ve had to limit them,” she said of rationing food, “and that’s hard.”
She received Farmers to Families food boxes through GCU partner Arizona Helping Hands, the largest provider of basic needs to children of foster care families in the state. Those food boxes were a godsend, she said.
But distributing food was just the beginning, the first movement of what the University hopes will be a symphony – perhaps GCU’s masterwork composition -- when it comes to its work in the community.
The University announced at a press conference Monday that the next movement in the GCU/CityServe partnership has begun.
GCU will become a major CityServe distribution center of household goods to families in need in Arizona. As such, it will be the first university model for CityServe, a network of churches and community leaders across seven states working collaboratively to impact their communities.
To make that vision come to fruition, GCU is creating a 35,000-square-foot campus warehouse, or HUB, that will house overstock and like-new condition items – gifts-in-kind from major retailers such as Amazon, Costco, Home Depot and Lowe’s. Those items will include everything from clothing to school supplies, blankets, mattresses, heaters, fans, furniture and more.
Churches, school districts and social service organizations will serve as points of distribution, or PODs, that will pick up those essential items from the University's HUB, which will be operated by a mostly volunteer force. The PODs will then distribute those goods, with distributions expected to begin this fall.
During the Farmers to Families initiative, which began in December at GCU, the University expanded its partnerships in the community. It's worked with 40 PODs to distribute approximately 18,000 boxes of food.
“When I brought Dave (Donaldson, Co-founder and Chairman of CityServe) to look at our 35,000-square-foot warehouse, he said, ‘That’s not NEARLY big enough,’” said GCU President Brian Mueller. “’These trucks are going to be coming from all over the country. … And 100 (PODs) – that’s not near enough. We want you to serve the entire state. … There’s a lot of need.’”
Providing the ‘With’
Donaldson knew about need early in life.
He was just 9 years old when a drunk driver struck his parents’ car, killing his father instantly and seriously injuring his mother.
He and his three siblings didn’t know what was to become of them. Then the Davis family, who lived in a single-wide trailer, took them in at their greatest time of need.
“I’ll never forget that day we walked up to this trailer. I wondered, will this be another stop along the way? Will they want us, keep us? As we shuffled inside, Mr. Davis gave us hugs and this is what he said: ‘You are with family; this is your home.’
“That four-letter word – WITH – changed our lives. … This partnership, and we’re just getting started, we’re going to provide a lot of WITH,” said Donaldson of GCU’s expanding partnership with CityServe.
That tragic event set Donaldson on a course to help families in need, just as others helped his family.
It was just four years ago that Donaldson co-founded CityServe in Bakersfield, California. The nonprofit partners with more than 2,000 HUBs across the nation.
The organization has distributed more than 15 million Farmers to Families food boxes through the faith-based community during the pandemic and more than $749 million of goods-in-kind to families nationwide.
Donaldson always has wanted the organization to partner with a university and knew he found the right place when he met Mueller.
“Brian and me, we hit it off,” Donaldson said.
The leaders both speak of the brokenness in the world and how they see it as Christians’ mission to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and help those in need. They want to help heal that brokenness and bring about transformational change.
It’s what guides GCU in its work in the community, instructed by its five-point plan.
CityServe looked at the University’s missional work in the community – from its efforts with Habitat for Humanity to restore west Phoenix homes to its tutoring and scholarship program for students in the neighborhood – and knew GCU was the right fit.
“You guys are already doing it,” said CityServe Co-founder and President Wendell Vinson at Monday’s press conference. “We want to come alongside of you and strengthen it and take on your heart and your passion and your mission forward together."
When asked why CityServe chose to work with GCU, Donaldson said, “I equate it to the transcontinental railroad, where God is already creating tracks that are moving in this direction. … It was obvious that these tracks were supposed to align.”
He added, “This is going to be the university model that God is going to bless, that He’s going to replicate in America and around the globe – and it starts today.”
Mueller says GCU expects to hit the ground running in September in distributing those household goods, an effort that he says will galvanize the University’s students and employees.
But his vision for CityServe extends beyond food or essential items distributions.
In the next phase of the initiative, he sees the University’s nine colleges working with a network of families in need to help bring about long-term, sustainable, transformational change.
“All nine deans are looking at their programs,” said Mueller.
Dr. Lisa Smith, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, spoke at the press conference about her college providing health care for the community. Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, shared how CHSS students could provide counseling or mentorship services. And Colangelo College of Business Dean Dr. Randy Gibb said the CCOB’s Dr. Eduardo Borquez already has been working with the community to help build successful businesses.
Mueller also sees the CityServe partnership as a way to help students build a strong sense of who they are.
“I say this to the students: You are all going into the ministry, whether you’re going as a pastor or a teacher or a computer scientist. … What we want to do is give you a chance to take what you know and take what you can do into the darkest places,” he said.
What GCU leaders know is that their vision for deeper change in the community starts here, with the recent food distributions and the ensuing household items disbursements.
“This announcement is very exciting,” said Dan Shufelt, President of Arizona Helping Hands, which provided more than 8 million products this year to families in need in Arizona. “To be able to access this resource and to expand it even further is truly exciting and meaningful to our community.”
“It’s another great morning and another great example of what GCU is doing with this community,” said sports entrepreneur and GCU advisor Jerry Colangelo, who at Monday’s press conference expressed how he loves that everyone on campus rolls up their sleeves to make a contribution. “ … What is the legacy that we will leave? When I think about GCU’s involvement and the impact it’s had on this community, it’s overwhelming to me, it really is.”
Maybe GCU’s CityServe warehouse isn’t nearly big enough. Maybe the number of PODs isn’t nearly expansive enough. But when it comes to vision and heart: They’re more than big enough.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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