They talked turkey -- and how to help the food bank

Community Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo (upper left) helms the Turkey Town Hall Informational on Giving Tuesday.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Matt Cooper is inspired most every day at St. Mary’s Food Bank, where he's the Food Drive Coordinator. But there was one day in particular this Thanksgiving that he won't forget in a pandemic year that also won’t be forgotten.

St. Mary's Food Bank is the recipient of funds collected from the Give With Purpose employee holiday giving campaign.

The organization received a handwritten note from a man who used to be a food bank donor but now found himself on hard times. His wife was in hospice care, and because he could not afford a nurse to stay with her, he was not able to come to the food bank.

Two of Cooper’s co-workers, a database administrator and direct mail associate who don’t directly work with the distribution center, ran to Cooper’s office.

“How do we get these people food?” they asked.

“Because I have experience working at a distribution center, we went right over, we got them a turkey and we got them the 100 pounds (of food) that we’re normally distributing to every other family," Cooper said. "They drove in their own car right then and there to help this family. ... They knew they had to do something just by being part of St. Mary’s.”

Cooper was one of the speakers at the virtual Turkey Town Hall Informational on Giving Tuesday, a movement that unofficially opens the giving season with hopes of sparking global generosity.

The event was designed to introduce Grand Canyon University and Grand Canyon Education employees to its community partner, St. Mary’s Food Bank, and other champions of the mission to alleviate hunger in Arizona.

The GCU baseball team collects turkeys, nonperishable food and monetary donations for St. Mary's at a local Safeway on Super Saturday, which was the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The Turkey Town Hall Informational, moderated by Community Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo, also was one of the events in the three-week-long Give With Purpose campaign, the employee holiday giving campaign to raise funds for the food bank. The campaign, which ends Friday, included Super Saturday, when the baseball team collected turkeys, nonperishable food and funds for St. Mary's the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

A portion of the sale of Angie's Pies at Canyon 49 Grill also is going to the food bank, and donation boxes have been placed at GCU Hotel for nonperishable food items as the hotel and restaurant get ready for its Christmas tree lighting ceremony at 5 p.m. Thursday (make a monetary donation to the food bank here). 

Since 2017, the GCU community has donated more than $41,000 to St. Mary’s. Last year alone, employees raised more than $5,140 for the organization, and along with corporate matches from Pono Construction, GCE and GCU, the food bank received more than $20,000.

Like it has been for that letter-writer, this year has been difficult for St. Mary’s.

Cooper said the organization’s distribution center normally sees about 600 families. But in March, when the pandemic first hit Arizona, that number jumped overnight to 1,500.

“How are we going to feed all these people that we weren’t expecting to?” said Cooper. “It was an all-hands-on-deck mission for our administrative staff, even. Our IT staff was out there running carts to families in need, and it was just eye-opening and scary, to be honest. People were panicking.”

The numbers have leveled off, with the food bank seeing about 1,000 families per day.

“It’s still about 25% more than we’ve been experiencing, and we’re doing this with 70% less volunteers and 53% less food drive donations,” he added.

While the Arizona National Guard has stepped up for the nonprofit since April to provide manpower, St. Mary’s still has had to hire temporary workers and has had to invest in fencing and canopies.

“There’s just so many extra expenses that I didn’t even think about that we were going to have to purchase,” said Cooper, who added that every day since March has felt like Thanksgiving turkey distribution week, when St. Mary’s is operating at its highest capacity. “So a fundraiser like this at this time is so much needed, especially after our big turkey distribution. … We don’t know how much longer we can sustain this, and that’s really where we need the community donations. … We have to keep up with these numbers, especially if another spike comes.”

He expressed how 50% of the clients at St. Mary's these days have never used a food bank before and that “some of these are donors of ours previously who never expected to be in this position.”

Accomazzo expressed how some of those clients could be any of us.

She shared the story of a co-worker during the 2019 Give With Purpose campaign who told her, “That was me last year.”

“I didn’t quite understand," Accomazzo said. "That employee repeated, ‘That was me last year. My spouse at the time was unemployed and looking for a job. I hadn’t gotten the job at GCU. That was me. We needed help.’”

“Our messaging is always that we’re here to help,” Cooper continued.

St. Mary’s Food Bank always has been there to help GCU. It was in 2013 when the nonprofit approached the University about supplying food to the Learning Lounge, where K12 students in the neighborhood receive free academic help from GCU scholars.

Shari Stagner, GCU's Director of K12 Outreach, spoke about how the food bank has helped the Learning Lounge.

“They provide us food six days a week,” said K12 Outreach Director Shari Stagner. “We have a driver that shows up faithfully every day and delivers those meals. … We have a lot of kids who have lunch at 10:30 in the morning. By the time school is over (and they’re at the Learning Lounge), they’re super hungry.”

Stagner said hunger is a distractor for a child and has a major impact on their ability to focus. So getting that support from St. Mary’s helps GCU in its mission to sustain students academically.

“We’re partners in the community because we’re both here to provide – to fulfill a need. We support academics, but it extends beyond that because of our partnership with you,” she said to Cooper.

It was in 2017, four years after that partnership between GCU and St. Mary’s started at the Learning Lounge, that the food bank became the recipient of the funds employees raised over the holidays, though employees’ giving spirit extends for years before then.

St. Mary's Food Bank provides cold meals six days a week to the Learning Lounge.

Employees started a Battle of the Turkeys and awarded the Golden Turkey Trophy to the department that raised the most money to help those in need.

“It’s been in motion for over 10 years,” said Vanessa Garcia, who works in administrative support for Military/Business Operations. “If you’re an online Operations employee, that means you are, just by nature, a helper, an assistant, a server. You’re willing to give and help at any cost. But we’re also performance-driven. We really like schools and we like competition. But at the intersection is a perfect combination for just a mission that we love.

“GCU, as a whole, our employees, we realize that we’re all blessed and we just love to serve our community, so why not make a friendly competition to reach our goals for Battle of the Turkeys, which has definitely helped out for the greater community.”

When the holidays roll around, Garcia, along with Accomazzo, Sue Boyle, who works in administrative support for Dual Enrollment, and Pono Construction’s Butch Glispie and Amber Glispie form the core Give With Purpose team. This year, the team knew the campaign would look different in the face of the pandemic.

That kind of friendly competition and award giveaways has taken a back seat to the great need of St. Mary’s, which again will receive help from corporate matching donor Pono Construction.

Butch Glispie, Pono’s owner, didn’t hesitate to match employee donations because he is acutely aware of the community’s need.

Pono Construction's Amber and Butch Glispie and Thunder celebrate the end of a successful campaign in 2017.

“Part of it goes back to my childhood. If there was a need and you were able and didn’t fulfill it, I guarantee you my grandmother would have had me by the ear, dragging me out to the woodshed,” said Glispie. “I still feel that tug occasionally from my grandmother.

“I grew up in west and south Phoenix, so I am familiar with the great need there is sometimes. There was a time growing up where we had to reach out to people like St. Mary’s Food Bank, so that has a special place in my heart, obviously, so we do what we can.”

And Accomazzo knows we can do a lot.

“Every time I see the St. Mary’s Food Bank box truck delivering, it feels good because that is a reciprocal relationship that says we’re in this together and we’re going to move this forward and we’re going to transform this community together -- and we will and we are.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


For questions about Give with Purpose: email [email protected].

To donate: Click here


Related content:

GCU Today: Give with Purpose Campaign Underway

GCU Today: GCU baseball helps food bank get a (turkey) leg up

GCU Today: Feather in GCU’s baseball cap: Turkeys for food bank


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