Story by Ryan Kryska
GCU News Bureau
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Dream Center coordinator, Cindy Bernardo, calls herself a “ricochet rabbit” -- a fitting nickname for the leader of a place that in one hour can feed, teach and even shelter the Phoenix community’s children.
Bernardo made sure each child on June 21 who came to the center -- one of Grand Canyon University's community partners -- spent 20 minutes reading and writing before they went on to one of the activities offered that day. On any given night, 30 to 100 children stream through the facility, tucked south of the I-17 loop at 420 W. Watkins Road. It’s Bernardo and her team’s job to make sure the children are taken care of.
As she explained the process, she was often interrupted by leg hugs, arm tugs and questions such as, “Can I read a girl book today?”
“Some of these kids just melt my heart,” Bernardo said as she recalled dreaming about one of the boys who came up to her. “You just worry when you don’t see them.”
Bernardo’s staff gets help from volunteers – a lot of them – some of whom show up day after day.
GCU senior Bre L’Estrange was one of those volunteers June 21. She helped the center’s urban farm coordinator, Nika Forte, run the last session of a four-week class that taught children about gardening.
L’Estrange was recently honored as Miss Colorado Earth, a designation she earned through her platform, “Think Global, Act Local.” She will compete in July to become Miss Earth United States.
L’Estrange and Forte prepared a lesson plan that included having the children plant succulents in old plastic bottles.
L’Estrange said she went dumpster diving for bottles before the session to teach the kids how important it is to reuse.
“I grew up in a very small town, and I really take pride in teaching kids about how small actions can make a huge impact,” she said.
L’Estrange gave the children a presentation on how much plastic is wasted in the U.S. She and Forte then helped them plant succulents in bottles, which the kids were able to take home.
“It was so cute,” L’Estrange said. “Education is fun. You’re never too old or too young to learn.”
Forte at a previous session gave the kids seeds to take home and plant. Her journey at the center began when she started helping the urban farm on a college externship.
Her mother, a teacher, had been helping the center and told Forte about the opportunities there. So she went as part of her education, but when it was time to leave, she was offered a position to become a full-time member of the center’s family.
That was three years ago and Forte hasn’t looked back. She leads three urban farms, growing food that goes into the center’s dining halls. The center uses all-natural methods and has community volunteers and even some of the center’s residents who help.
“I get to shape healthy adults. That’s why I do this," Forte said. “We have fast food on every corner, but if you teach kids to grow kale, they’ll eat kale.”
University employees interested in volunteering can email the center for more information.
Contact Ryan Kryska at (602) 639-8415 or [email protected]edu.