By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University and community partner Habitat for Humanity are about to do something astonishing.
They’re on the cusp of completing almost 1,000 home repairs for 400 families in need since they began collaborating in 2015.
“That’s just huge because those 400 families are unique,” said GCU alumna Andrea Northup, Sponsor Relations Manager for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona. “So when you see the number of repairs reaching 1,000, it just shows that families come back for more than one repair. They might reach out for something simple, like paint or landscape, and then they come back with other things.”
As of Jan. 12, the community partners had scaled 993 window, painting, landscape, roofing and other repairs for 392 families — projects that couldn’t have been accomplished without the other vital element in the home-improvement initiative: the more than $4.4 million distributed to Habitat through employee-giving program Allocate to Elevate.
Those numbers might have seemed unscalable seven years ago, when the University took its first steps to restore homes in the Canyon Corridor. The idea was a grand one – GCU wanted to return the community to its roots as a thriving middle-class neighborhood.
It’s an effort that has since expanded to include repairs to homes in nearby Maryvale, where the University partners with the Milwaukee Brewers.
In 2019, the Brewers, yet another community partner in transforming the neighborhood, invested in a $60 million renovation of its spring training facility, the result of a 25-year agreement with the city of Phoenix. The facility, the American Family Fields of Phoenix, includes a GCU Learning Lounge, where K-12 students from nearby schools receive academic assistance from the University’s students.
Initiatives such as the collaborations with Habitat for Humanity and the Brewers are just two pegs in GCU’s broader five-point plan in the community. The plan includes not just improving home values, as the Habitat partnership does, and supporting K-12 education, as the Learning Lounge does, but making neighborhoods safer, creating jobs and serving families in need.
Reaching that 1,000-repair milestone is especially meaningful for GCU considering the roadblocks of COVID-19. The suspension of Habitat projects proved a bitter pill to swallow for a campus such as GCU, whose missional mindset and need to serve their neighbors is so strong.
Not that GCU and Grand Canyon Education didn’t continue to support Habitat. They did.
Although the early mornings of painting and shoveling rock on Habitat projects was limited, the campus community during the pandemic still redirected about $1.47 million to the initiative through Allocate to Elevate — that’s a little more than $863,000 in 2020 and almost $607,000 in 2021.
How the landscape has changed since those early days of the pandemic.
After a year and a half of not being able to work on Habitat projects alongside homeowners, who contribute “sweat equity” and 33% on average of the cost of the project, GCU has returned in full to those painting and landscaping shifts.
“It is really exciting to be back,” said student worker Gloria Wall, who facilitates the campus’ faculty and staff Habitat projects with Sara Murray, Wellness Benefits Specialist in Human Resources. “We definitely missed it last year. It’s great to be back and to be serving again and to be making an impact.”
Dr. Mark Wireman, associate professor in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, shared that sentiment. He joined more than two dozen staff and faculty volunteers from the college on a recent Saturday. They painted the exterior of two houses for families in the neighborhood.
Fanning out into the community to volunteer for Habitat projects is something the department does annually, but it couldn’t in 2021 because of COVID-19 precautions.
“We really missed volunteering last year,” he said, adding how “it was great to get back” to serving the community. It was so easy to coordinate this year’s Habitat event for his college, he said, because the faculty and staff “were eager to participate.”
And so was the rest of the campus.
In the fall semester, the first opportunity to volunteer for a Habitat project aside from some limited events during the pandemic (such as Habitat’s first 3D-printed home build and a mini Serve the City), students and GCU/GCE staff completed 34 Habitat projects.
Employees alone filled 421 volunteer shifts in 2021, totaling 1,926 volunteer hours.
Twenty-eight more Habitat events are planned for the spring semester, some of those with multiple projects.
Besides those 28 events, one of the big celebrations for GCU-Habitat will be the men’s basketball game on Thursday, when the Lopes take on Seattle University. Not only will it be Throwback Thursday, but it will be Habitat Night, too.
The community home-building organization will get a shout-out during a timeout, about 60 Habitat guests are expected at the game, and Habitat President and Chief Executive Officer Jason Barlow will be interviewed courtside.
Then students will launch into the next Serve the City — now called Lopes Go Local — on Feb. 26.
“We’re expecting about 150 volunteers,” Wall said of the event, one of two Lopes Go Local events slated annually, when students span out into the neighborhood to complete multiple projects simultaneously in a home-renovation blitz.
It follows the first Lopes Go Local event in November, in which students completed projects at nine homes — projects that average about $3,100 each.
The Allocate team this year is setting its sights on a $3.4 million pledge goal for the three initiatives the program supports: Habitat for Humanity, School Choice Arizona in support of private Christian education, and public school extracurricular activities.
GCU is continuing to dedicate itself to the neighborhood and its transformation as it gets set to surpass that 1,000-repair milestone and a new semester of Habitat volunteer opportunities ramp up.
As Northup emphasized, “People are just so grateful for it.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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