Student Living Her Faith in South Phoenix Receives Community Service Award

By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau

Easter always has been a big deal to Grand Canyon University junior Jenessa Fesmire. The daughter of a pastor, she grew up celebrating Christ’s resurrection with family and fellowship first, egg hunts and candy second.

Two years ago, as a freshman in the GCU Servant Scholar Program, Fesmire wanted to introduce the joyous holiday to the young boys whom she was mentoring at Barrio Nuevo, a nonprofit helping at-risk youth develop a love of God, life, learning and leadership.

So she brought three of them to her dad’s church, Christ’s Church of the Valley, then to her family’s house for dinner and an afternoon of fun. It was later in the day, after she had driven the boys home, that Fesmire felt called by God to minister to the children and dozens more like them in their impoverished south Phoenix neighborhoods.

“I walked them to their front door, and they weren’t welcomed back home, not by anyone, and that was hard for me,” she said. “I got big hugs, and the boys thanked me and said it was the best holiday they’d ever had. That’s when I realized I love these kids, and I can’t imagine being without them.”

Fesmire’s dedication and hard work have earned her the GCU Community Service Award for October. The University established the monthly award to honor students who innovate and lead community outreach through a passion for serving the Lord.

September's inaugural recipient was Jesse Villegas, a senior sociology major who  helped launch programs to mentor refugee children living in Serrano Village Apartments, east of GCU.  (Read about his story and watch a short video about his ministry at Serrano.)

“Jenessa doesn’t reflect the neighborhood, but she’s chosen to dive in, and in three years she’s become a part of it,” said Pastor Dave Bennett, director of Barrio Nuevo. “She’s living out her passion for Christ by taking in kids who live to see her every week. She has given them stability, normalcy, support. She’s won their trust and their allegiance, and they love her.”

Fesmire came to GCU to study nursing but changed her major to sociology, with a minor in Christian studies, shortly after starting at Barrio Nuevo. Her requirement of four hours of service per week soon grew to 20, as did the recipients of her love, who now include boys and girls in 50 families. Amid their trips to McDonald's, parks and bowling alleys, Fesmire gives lessons in manners, respect, self-esteem and responsibility.

“I’ve had to earn their trust because these kids have been through a lot,” said Fesmire, 20, a Life Leader in Saguaro Hall. “They’ve witnessed murders, some of their parents are in prison, and there are drug deals and gang activity in their neighborhoods.”

Recently, several of the boys saw their uncle murder their cousin. She is concerned that the boys seemed unfazed.

“I took them all home for the weekend, and it was neat seeing how normalcy really does impact their behavior,” she said. “That’s the atmosphere I want to create for them. I want them to be raised to know the Lord, to know the importance of education, to know that they can break the cycle.”

Fesmire, who also sponsors a young Kenyan orphan whom she met on a GCU mission trip, sending money each month for food and schooling, plans to move to south Phoenix after she graduates a year early in April. She intends to buy a home with Bennett’s help and establish a transitional home for children with no place else go to.

Confident that this is her purpose and that God will protect her, Fesmire will live out her favorite Bible verse (John 1:5): “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never extinguish it.”

Contact Janie Magruder at 639.8018 or [email protected].

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