Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
It was a good day for Barbara Schmidt, one brightened not just by the Phoenix sun stretching its rays to greet her, but from 35 sprightly student volunteers from Grand Canyon University. They were shoveling, spreading and smoothing landscape rock on the front yard of her home on west Montebello Avenue, just a couple of miles from campus.
The home spruce-up was one of nine simultaneous painting and landscaping projects Saturday morning that were part of Serve the City, the twice-a-year home-improvement blitz organized by the University and partner Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona. (Here's a slideshow.)
The days haven’t always been as bright over the past few months for Schmidt and her husband, Waldo, who lost their daughter recently to COVID-19. She was only 43 years old.
“We thought she was going to get better because she sent a picture to her husband and told him, ‘I’m finally going to have breakfast and go to sleep.’”
She didn’t get better, however.
“We still can’t believe it,” said Schmidt, whose voice started to waver as she thought about her daughter. “It’s very painful to lose a child.”
But taking the lay of the land Saturday morning as she watched students planting a mesquite tree and other greenery in her yard, Schmidt soaked up the sunshine and the energy of the students.
And she couldn’t help but feel even more uplifted with the arrival of an unexpected gift.
Not only did the exterior of Schmidt’s home get a facelift, but so did the interior, thanks to GCU CityServe. In the University’s latest initiative, in-kind goods from national retailers such as Costco, Home Depot and more are received at the campus’ warehouse and then distributed by GCU’s community partners to families in need across Arizona.
Volunteers from GCU’s CityServe warehouse delivered bedding, a desk and a microwave from the warehouse, or HUB, at 27th Avenue and Camelback Road.
Owners in six of the nine Serve the City homes received household goods from the warehouse, including a refrigerator delivered to Catalina Diaz.
“We thought, this is the perfect opportunity. There are families that need stuff, and we have stuff in the warehouse. We’re going to be out there anyway serving them (for Serve the City), so why not poll the families ahead of time, figure out what it is they need, have GCU students load it up and deliver it the same day?” said Jason Barlow, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.
The day would be a compassionate two-fer of sorts for many of the families.
Steve Irving, CityServe volunteer coordinator, said the intent is to work more closely with Habitat for future deliveries.
“It feels cool to be a part of such radical generosity,” Irving said. “I’ve been part of a lot of nonprofits that don’t have the supplies. It’s nice to be on the other side, where we have too much. … It’s cool to find opportunities to really give to people who need it.”
A return to the community
This weekend’s Serve the City marked the first time GCU and Habitat returned full force to its work in the surrounding west Phoenix neighborhood since COVID-19 struck in the spring of 2020.
“I know COVID put a wrench into a lot of things. ... It’s good to be out here this morning. I will tell you that,” Habitat Sponsor Relations Manager and GCU alumna Andrea Northup said to the approximately 200 students who gathered at 7:30 a.m. on the Promenade before spanning out to the nine houses on the home-renovation blitz.
Although the on-site work of students and staff on Habitat projects was limited before Saturday, the GCU community continued to support the organization through its workplace giving program, Allocate to Elevate. GCU and GCE employees have the opportunity to re-route the tax dollars they normally would pay to the state to specific initiatives the University supports, such as Habitat for Humanity. In 2020, employees re-directed $3.2 million of those tax dollars to Habitat, School Choice Arizona and public school extra-curricular programs and, this year, they are looking to funnel $3.4 million to those three causes.
Barlow said the financial pledges employees make to Habitat through Allocate to Elevate “go into this love blanket, I call it, that hangs over this entire area – this whole Canyon Corridor.”
Families who receive the home-improvement help through Habitat and GCU pay 30% of the cost of the work being done during Serve the City, with the other 70% coming “out of that blanket of love from all of you and your staff and faculty,” he said.
GCU and GCE faculty and staff have contributed more than $4 million to renovating homes in the neighborhood, just one of the points in GCU’s five-point plan to transform the community.
The GCU-Habitat partnership has served 365 families in the neighborhood, Barlow said, through the completion of almost 1,000 home repairs – repairs made by students such as Katelyn Peterson.
The sophomore sociology major with an emphasis in social work said, as a freshman, she was not able to serve her community during COVID-19 in the way she would have liked, particularly as a member of Local Outreach.
“It was harder to get involved. … It was more on-campus things,” Peterson said of community efforts during the pandemic.
That changed at this weekend’s Serve the City.
“It was really cool to just see it (community service) right in front of you,” she said as she planted a Texas sage in the front of the Schmidt home.
Brooke Alaniva, a sophomore/early childhood education major who also is a part of Local Outreach said, “Serving others is something I really enjoy doing. I wanted to do something like this last year but, because of COVID, I couldn’t do it, so I was really excited to do it this year.”
What she loved about it, she said, is how Habitat put the students right to work the moment they got off the bus to the Schmidt home.
“It’s nice to see everyone out here doing it for the same reasons: to show the love of God to others,” Alaniva said.
Freshman business management student Micaiah Cabesa, who wielded a paint brush at the North 39th Drive home of Wendy Walther, said she wanted to join the event “to get more connected to the community.”
Adrianna Ruby, a freshman biomedical engineering major, heard about Serve the City at Chapel and the Gathering and was thrilled to volunteer. She, too, helped paint Walther’s home.
“I really loved talking to the homeowner, Wendy. She’s such a doll,” Ruby said.
Walther has lived in her home for 27 years.
Habitat replaced the windows for her two years ago, and she was happy to see GCU’s student volunteers paint her house a happy yellow.
“I love it,” she said of seeing the sea of GCU students at her home.
Revitalizing the spirit
Habitat for Humanity team leader, volunteer and board member Ken Marquis has been involved in 10 of the 12 GCU Serve the City home-improvement blitzes.
“GCU comes in full force and never leaves us unimpressed,” he said. “These guys always have a positive energy. It’s like they all have Red Bull in the morning. They come out with such enthusiasm and such energy. It’s invigorating. Anyone that works with Habitat for Humanity should work with a GCU team once. It revitalizes your spirit.”
He added, “I think if there’s one thing to remember, one thing that COVID should have taught us, it’s that we need more humanitarian effort and thinking than we needed anything else. We’re happy to come out and do God’s work, do what needs to be done to make sure that we’re looking out for our fellow man.”
Schmidt embraced that humanitarian effort.
She and her husband moved to Phoenix from Kykotsmovi Village, the home of the Hopi tribal government, so that their son, who is hearing impaired, could attend Phoenix Day School for the Deaf.
They moved to the neighborhood in 2004, and their home of late has needed a lot of love. Habitat painted the Schmidts’ home just a few months ago.
On Saturday, they were ecstatic to get the exterior done.
Add the CityServe donation on top of that?
It was that bit of brightness to cap off a year that, for many during COVID, has had its share of darkness.
Schmidt said, “I’m glad you all have big hearts to be here today to help with the rock – and to make our home look beautiful.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.