Students roll with school's synergy for GCU, Habitat event

Grand Canyon University student body vice president Amaya De La Cruz (center) and other GCU student volunteers paint a block wall at Synergy Public School during Lopes Go Local alongside community partner Habitat for Humanity.

Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow

Brooks Burk drives by Synergy Public School every day.

But now the prelaw and business management freshman at Grand Canyon University will take a longer look at the school when he drives by.

Lopes Go Local student volunteers, including Freshman Class Council member Brooks Burk (center), dig holes to plant new trees along a block wall at Synergy Public School.

He’ll see the block wall fence he helped paint.

He’ll see the 10 fruitless olive trees he helped plant.

More than that, he’ll see the good he helped bring to the community around GCU.

“I love that when you drive by a place, you get to see the fruit of your labor,” said Burk, who early Saturday morning was huddled around the trees that he and fellow GCU students were getting ready to plant in front of that fence. It was where even more students, all armed with rollers and brushes, added a fresh layer of paint.

Lori Weiss co-founded Synergy Public School, where 15 GCU students are completing their student teaching.

He was just one of approximately 250 students – 35 of them at Synergy – changing the landscape of the neighborhood as part of the 17th semiannual Lopes Go Local. The home rehabilitation event on steroids is when teams of students scatter across the Canyon Corridor to complete multiple home revitalization projects alongside community partner Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.

Students walked and boarded buses to 11 nearby homes and to Synergy Public School, co-founded in 2016 by Lori Weiss and Melissa McKinsey.

Back then, Weiss had retired from the Alhambra Elementary School District. But she wasn’t done making a difference.

“We decided it would be fun to open a charter school,” said Weiss.

So when the old Carrington College building became available on Bethany Home Road, she knew: “Somebody was watching over us.”

That someone continued watching over them when, a few years later, the school added sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms.

“We wanted to offer an opportunity for kids in this community,” said Weiss, as the pumped-up GCU students behind her painted the newly installed block wall fence, placed after the previous fence was partly torn down to give firefighters access to a fire in the adjacent alley. “… We wanted parents to have a choice on where they send their children.”

Weiss said, like all parents in the neighborhood, “They’re dedicated; they want what’s best for their children.”

GCU and Synergy’s partnership extends beyond Lopes Go Local.

It’s also one of GCU’s partner schools.

Weiss and McKinsey worked with GCU when they were educators in the Alhambra schools. So when it was suggested that the University’s College of Education students delve into their student teaching at Synergy, “Absolutely!” Weiss said. “We would love to have those student teachers.”

Fifteen are embedded in the school, and even more have become part of the staff as full-time teachers after they graduated.

“We’ve hired several,” Weiss said. “They know our culture. They know how we operate. They know our vision.”

Seeing so many GCU students helping beautify the school on a Saturday morning warmed Weiss’ heart.

The shadow of a Lopes Go Local student volunteer is cast on a freshly painted wall as he uses a pickaxe to dig a hole to plant a new tree at Synergy Public School.

“It’s AMAZING,” she said. “They’ll have this done in no time.”

The team of 35 students at the school included members of the Associated Students of GCU and Freshman Class Council, as well as groups like the Pre-Dental Society.

“I think the kids will be super excited to see the new wall,” said sophomore pre-med student Melanie Xie, one of a dozen members of the Pre-Dental Society who were busy painting the new Synergy wall. “It’s something they’ll look forward to.”

It's an amazing opportunity to come out and serve the community. It's what it should be all about.

Junior Kalani Price, business management student and Lopes Go Local volunteer

Matty Jacobson and Kalani Price were at the school as part of their servant leadership class group project.

Price, a junior business management/marketing student, was volunteering for the first time.

“I am very fortunate,” she said of the blessings in her life, so at Lopes Go Local, she wanted to spread those blessings around. "... It’s an amazing opportunity to come out and serve the community. It’s what it should be all about.”

Sophomore beach volleyball player Sarah Elder paints a home on West Palo Verde Drive, one of 11 homes GCU students volunteered to paint and landscape as part of Lopes Go Local with partner Habitat for Humanity.

Jason Barlow, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, would agree. He said a Christian university partnering with an organization like Habitat, with its Christian mission, has been a match made in heaven.

“You’ll be working alongside, we hope, your family,” he said, as students gathered on the Promenade at 7:30 a.m. to check in and join in a prayer before heading to the different work sites.

Since the GCU-Habitat partnership began in 2015 as part of the University’s five-point plan to transform the community, Barlow said 530 unique families have been helped. It’s work that could not have been done without faculty and staff contributing close to $6 million through GCU’s Allocate to Elevate program.

“And we have had thousands and thousands of hours, something like 40,000 volunteer hours,” he said of the partnership.

Director of Spiritual Life Erik Nelsen read from John 13:34-35 before students departed on their assignments: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Sophomore women’s soccer player Hannah Smith grabs ladders from a utility truck. Members of the women's soccer team also took part in Lopes Go Local.

“Right there is the Bible in those two verses,” Nelsen said. “… It is a reflection of the love we have been impacted by … and through service, we are able to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Just a mile and a half away from Synergy school, other student groups, such as Local Outreach, women's soccer and the beach volleyball team, were shoveling landscape rock and mounted ladders to complete exterior painting projects for homeowner Sandy Osborne and her sister, Kandi Perry, who lives next door.

Osborne has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years; her sister followed.

She hoped for a darker color blue for her three-story home, but this blue was pretty, too. She spoke of the bells her husband, Dwayne, makes, including the one hanging outside their home that he rang as members of GCU’s beach volleyball team helped her spruce up her house.

Her sister was the first on the list to get work done during Lopes Go Local, but when Habitat saw that Osborne lived just next door, they scheduled her work concurrently.

“I think it’s awesome the students can come out and volunteer like this,” Sandy Osborne said.

It’s work that she and her husband might not have been able to do themselves as they’ve grown in age with the neighborhood, even though Osborne has painted the entire house herself twice before.

Freshman beach volleyball player Becca Drake shovels landscape rock at a home on West Palo Verde Drive during Lopes Go Local on Saturday.

Freshman psychology and neuroscience major Sarah Lewis, one of the two dozen beach volleyball students on site, said what she loves about working on a Habitat project is the connections you make.

She has volunteered for Feed My Starving Children before, she said, but never met the children she was serving, who lived a world away.

“The chance to meet the homeowner is really unique,” said Lewis, who added how GCU provides “so many resources to do opportunities like this” so she could squeeze volunteer work into her busy student-athlete schedule.

And she echoed Brooks Burk’s bigger-picture thought from the Synergy site, about seeing the fruits of her labor: “I planted that plant. In a year or two, I’m going to see that plant.”

Fellow beach volleyball team member Becca Drake said the team tries to volunteer together at least once a semester.

“GCU has such an emphasis on community, so we do whatever we can do, because community is unmatched at all other colleges,” Drake said. “… By serving people, we’re fulfilling that.”

As Nelsen said in the morning prayer, we're loving one another.

Internal Communications Manager Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU News: Lopes Go Local volunteers plant seeds of kindness

GCU News: GCU, Habitat changing landscape of neighborhood revitalization

GCU News: Don't sit back, bump up your future, Mueller advises new GCU students


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Bible Verse

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins. (James 4:17)

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