Students change local landscape at Serve the City

The 220 GCU students at Serve the City pose for a group shot before heading out into the neighborhood. (Photo by Kaitlyn Terrey)

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Even though it is before 8 o’clock on a sleepy Saturday morning, Grand Canyon University students – 220 of them – are fired up.

It is Serve the City day, and they have arisen early to elevate the look of 10 neighbor homes with painting, landscaping and cleaning and a neighborhood alley cleanup. They shout words of encouragement, pose for a group photo and then off they go, charging into the experience as if it’s going to be the highlight of their day – which, considering their giving spirit, it just might be.

Jason Barlow, President/CEO of Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, addresses the students. (Photo by Gillian Rea)

Nearby is Jason Barlow, President/CEO of Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, resplendent in a purple shirt and purple belt in honor of his visit to the purple-hued GCU campus. He’s fired up, too.

It is the third year of the GCU/Habitat partnership, which aims to renovate 700 homes in the University’s west Phoenix neighborhood. After this day, the total will be 131 homes and 289 repairs.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “We’ve gotten nothing but fantastic feedback.”

‘Perfect marriage’

Barlow is talking with Tim Kelley, Assistant Professor for Entrepreneurship and Economics in the Colangelo College of Business and the board chair for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona. Just being involved in Habitat fires up Kelley.

“I love it,” he says. “It’s an honor to be part of Habitat and GCU. It’s kind of like a perfect marriage.”

The GCU project is a bit of a different marriage for Habitat, which used to limit its focus to building new homes at a bargain price for needy families willing to put in 400 hours of sweat equity alongside the volunteers. For these renovations, only eight hours of sweat equity is required, and the repairs still are completed for only a fraction of what it normally would cost.

Barlow tells the story of a nurse who was so moved as her home was refurbished at the last Serve the City, she broke down and cried. “A lot of these people live paycheck to paycheck,” he says.

The GCU crew digs in to get the job done. (Photo by Kaitlyn Terrey)

That isn’t the only way GCU contributes to Habitat. Through its Donate to Elevate program, University employees can designate that their state tax dollars go to a charitable cause, such as Habitat.

Students do the heavy lifting

Now the morning is marching on as the sun struggles to peek through the clouds, and the students at Project No. 1 have just gotten their instructions from house leader Joe Genovese, who has built more than 50 homes with Habitat.

He gives careful instructions about making sure they don’t drip or track paint on the cement. Not only do Habitat volunteers perform a lot of tasks, they pride themselves on doing the work properly, and this rubs off on the students. “Water is your friend,” he tells them.

Moments later, he gushes about how much he enjoys having the students’ help. Yep, he’s fired up, too.

“I love it, especially when there’s heavy stuff to move around. Drop off 20 tons of gravel and I’m praying that GCU students are showing up,” he says. “They’re terrific. They’re learning at a very, very important stage in their life that service is to be integrated into their daily life.

Dr. Tim Griffin, Pastor and Dean of Students, was one of the workers, too. (Photo by Gillian Rea)

“Not just the fact that it’s a Christian university – it’s the fact that they’re young adults and it’s consistent with their faith. We’re here to serve our fellow man and give back. I’m thrilled that they weave this into their studies and into life on campus.”

Homeowner Porfirio Vasquez is on the patio in back, putting in his sweat equity as he works amid the students. He got fired up about taking advantage of the program when he saw how nice his neighbor’s house looked after a group of GCU students painted it and helped put in new windows.

“These are good, clean kids,” he says through an interpreter. “Instead of being out there partying, they’re working.”

Recruiting tool, too

One of those good, clean kids is GCU freshman Alexis Bauer, who’s fired up about her first Habitat project. She promises it won’t be the last.

“For sure,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s cool that I give back and see the community and how you can help and get involved.”

But Bauer is doing more than just painting a wall. She’s also painting a picture of life at GCU for Vasquez’s 10-year-old daughter, Amy, who already is thinking about college and has the one down the street in her sights.

“She was asking questions and I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll help you out,’” Bauer says.

Alexis Bauer (left) had homeowner Porfirio Vasquez's daughter, Amy (center), doing a Lopes Up before the end of the day. (Photo by Gillian Rea)

See how it comes full circle? But, besides their enthusiasm for the task at hand, all these people have one thing in common: a heart for the community.

Barlow, whose passion for what Habitat does knows no bounds, talks about how “this is something that could be happening everywhere. … I think more businesses are waking up to how important it is to give back to the community.”

“It’s not just give back,” Kelley interjects. “It’s be part of the community.”

All about networking

Barlow tells of how he has 35 board members and why Kelley plays such a key role.

“Tim, he’s the perfect board member because it’s all about networking,” Barlow says. “It’s not about how much you can give, it’s about how much I can use your mind and your contacts and your network to bring other people to the table.

“It’s huge. He’s brought people who have brought other people, and we have 35 people on the board now. Some people look at me, ‘That’s insane. Thirty-five?’ I’d have a hundred if I could because of that exact reason if they’re all active.”

Pouring the paint is a painstaking process. (Photo by Gillian Rea)

The GCU partnership is part of the reason why Habitat’s Central Arizona chapter is the largest and most active in the country. On this Saturday, its 11 job sites are about one-third the total that Habitat volunteers are leading all across the Valley. But these are the only ones where the workers all wear purple “Serve the City” T-shirts.

“This is just a great program, especially with Grand Canyon and neighborhood revitalization,” Genovese says. “It’s a remarkable concept and an extension of what we used to solely do, which is build new houses. But what about refurbishing existing houses? It’s a brilliant model, and GCU leads the charge.

“We couldn’t be luckier to have a partner like GCU.”

Serve the City is not the only time this happens. Hardly. The students are out there every other week doing similar work. But it feels a little more special on Serve the City – Barlow notes that it’s the sixth one for Habitat.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “When we started, it was rough. People feel snakebit, generally, when they hear of something that sounds too good to be true.”

But then they hear that they really can get their house renovated for a relative pittance and that the vast majority of the work will be done by smiling, purple-clad GCU students. And they get fired up, too.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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