By Jeannette Cruz
Photos By Gillian Rea and Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
Jordan Barrow was marking and chalking paint lines at a worn-down outdoor basketball court at Alfred F. Garcia Elementary School when he looked up at a friend.
“This is tiring,” Barrow said, “but you know what – the Holy Spirit.”
That Spirit pervaded the impoverished school Saturday morning as Barrow joined 300 of his fellow Grand Canyon University students and 50 more volunteers from Habitat for Humanity for the semiannual Serve the City outreach event.
The volunteers woke up early on a Saturday to shovel mounds of sand into two playground areas, paint the exterior wall of the school, turn the outdoor basketball, four-square and hopscotch squares into splendors of color, and even refill by hand the faded school emblem at the school’s entrance with fresh color.
“As GCU students we are grateful for the opportunity to bless others and to be able to showcase their community in a better light,” Barrow said.
Junior Hannah Harris agreed.
“God has given me the gift to serve my community and GCU has helped me realize that being a missionary doesn’t have to mean traveling to another country. I can be a missionary in my own city.”
Shannon Haupert said, “Something like shoveling dirt doesn’t sound like a lot because when we think of outreach ministries we think more about playing with kids and it doesn’t have to look that way. For these kids, landscaping or painting a wall is just as impactful.”
Students at Garcia Elementary buzzed with excitement when they hopped off their buses Monday morning. Their mouths hung open in awe.
“Look, it’s different! It’s different!” they shouted, tugging on each other’s shirts and pointing.
They then ran to celebrate the new playground with a game of tag, four-square and basketball.
“It’s not messed up anymore,” one student said before dropping down his backpack to play.
Another fifth-grade student stopped to look at the emblem and with a smile she said, “I like it.”
Nestled in an industrial area filled with junkyards, homeless encampments, jail houses and businesses enclosed by barbed-wire fencing, Garcia Elementary sits two miles southwest of the state Capitol in downtown Phoenix. It is one of four schools in the Murphy School District, which has seen declining enrollments and test scores amidst a shortage of full-time teachers and overall deteriorating conditions.
Murphy Superintendent Jose Diaz said the partnership with Grand Canyon, which also includes GCU students helping as tutors both during and after school, is changing all that.
“Garcia’s dream is coming true and it’s a turning point that’s going to last forever,” said Diaz, who has spent 18 years in the district as a teacher, principal of two schools and, since 2015, as its superintendent. “Every single second, all that we do here is for the babies – they are our future.”
Cassandra Jarles, director of sponsor relations at Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, couldn’t help but smile Saturday as volunteers worked to transform the school’s exterior into a vibrant place for its students to learn, play and grow.
“To look around, you can truly see the spirit and energy,” Jarles said. “It’s amazing to see the transformation.”
Even GCU President Brian Mueller dived in to help, moving dirt and shoveling sand.
“We are here because we are a Christian university and we need to identify those areas where there is real need,” he said. “This a neglected neighborhood with no real identity to it. All we want is for people to be proud to live here and to be proud to be going to these schools.”
Mueller emphasized that this is not a short-term relationship.
Fifty of GCU’s College of Education students spend three days a week at Garcia helping to teach kindergarten through third grade math, social studies, science and art. Another 21 GCU students provide academic assistance after school twice a week to 16 targeted students at each of the four schools in the district. And GCU provides leadership coaching for Diaz and all four principals.
The next phase of the GCU-Murphy partnership will feature 20 college students working with 10 children apiece after school at Hamilton Elementary in a setup similar to the University’s Learning Lounge. St. Mary’s Food Bank will provide a hot meal, just as it does when area students come to GCU’s campus for help in the Lounge.
“If you ask me, Diaz is the hero here,” Mueller said. “We are just grateful to give a little support.”
Through Habitat for Humanity, the Murphy School District will experience a revitalization of its schools as well as homes in the surrounding neighborhood, said Jarles.
“Everybody knows Habitat for home repair but we are here to transform our communities,” she said. “And schools are a part of that. Christ called us to serve here and we as GCU and Habitat for Humanity are able to do that.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or [email protected]