GCU alum gives hope to youth in foster care

GCU alumnus Isaiah Gomez is the community engagement director for Ohana. (Photos by Ralph Freso)

EDITOR'S NOTEThis is an expanded version of a story printed in the August issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.

Ohana’s center is in a southside strip mall between a nail shop and barber, a familiar sample of Phoenix and America. Nice nails and hair and kids who need help.

“Our economy is so much of funding things like sporting events and building retail and consumerism,” said Isaiah Gomez, waiting for a group of those kids to arrive at Ohana for a group session. “But you look at the numbers in Arizona. (Nearly) 10,000 kids without foster families. (Fewer than) half of them won’t get a high school diploma, and more than 20% of homeless made up of people who spent time in foster care.”

This 2017 Grand Canyon University graduate is here to sell something different.

Gomez has a message for youth in foster care.

Tattooed on his neck: There is hope.

“I just want to do what I can to bring awareness and tangible ideas to ways people can help. I’m called to it,” he said. “I want people to see that there is just so much fulfillment in bringing dignity to others, versus trying to build your own life of chasing accolades and security. The whole wall of commandments is loving your neighbor as yourself and serving others, and that is what sustains me.”

Five young women file into the offices from their nearby foster care group home, one of 18 that Ohana runs in the Valley along with services such as this work program led by Gomez, among his many duties as community engagement director.

“I want to keep challenging you guys to get a job,” Gomez says in a gentle voice. “It will keep you busy and out of trouble.”

The young women share their challenges, roadblocks and stories of getting in trouble at a job because they had to go to therapy and didn’t notify work. “A real job won’t let you do that. That’s strike one,” Gomez says. “Communication is going to be the biggest thing for you guys.”

The youth are easy with their conversation with him. One girl said she heard Taco Bell was paying good wages, while another shared that she had therapy and “it wasn’t fun.”

“He understands the kids. And he’s a good communicator,” said Ohana founder Dr. Ryan Senters, who got his doctorate in psychology from GCU in 2020.

Gomez had to face his own challenges before he could lead others. As the first to attend college in his family, he felt a lot of pressure in 2013 as a scholarship athlete on GCU’s wrestling team. At 4 a.m. before one meet, he was running in the hotel hallways wearing a garage bag to sweat out enough to make weight. Later that day, he was easily beaten by an opponent and was embarrassed.

“I felt empty, chasing that,” he said. “I felt burned out. Do I want to keep investing in this?”

After he quit the team, he didn’t know how he’d pay for college. His grades began to suffer, and he was discouraged.

But around GCU’s campus, he’d met some great people while serving others. So he signed up to work at a summer camp in Texas with young people, and that’s when he decided.

Gomez leads a work program for teens at Ohana.

“I’d rather be homeless and doing ministry, even though I knew I couldn’t afford college,” he said.

GCU gave him another shot. He worked double jobs in outreach and ministry on campus to pay for school.

“He had a change of heart while at GCU,” said Dr. Tim Griffin, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor.

Gomez's heart also grew as he explored the ways he could volunteer and minister to help others. Before his senior year, he was back at a camp for at-risk youth when that path was confirmed. At week’s end, a camper came to him crying. He told Gomez he wished the camp could be his life instead of the one he had, and he wanted to take with him a pillowcase and flashlight to remind him of the week.

“Hearing that kid cry, it really hurt my heart. It felt like God pulled a string and put a burden on me,” Gomez said. “It reminded me I had a passion for kids in foster care. It was something I had forgot about because of sports.”

He remembered that in fifth grade he was asked to write about what he would do with a million dollars. He wrote that he would build a home for foster kids.

That’s what he did. He started a nonprofit to house young adults transitioning out of foster care after he graduated from GCU in April 2017. It was tough, but he’d learned enough about trauma-informed care that he felt as if it set them apart.

“A lot of homes just are housing. They don’t want to look further to help them dream and show them what it looks like to have a higher education,” he said.

Gomez talks with teens at one of Ohana's centers.

He began work at Ohana in 2018 as his nonprofit stalled, and his own struggles were a reminder in helping the youth.

“I can’t do this on my own strength. There is hope past this world we live in,” he said. “How can I help give a glimpse of hope to youth but not manipulate them to think that this world is all dandelions and butterflies if you are Christian? It’s actually really hard, so here are some tools that will help you deal with those hardships and trials.”

He helped lead Ohana programs that give the children good memories, which he says is part of easing their traumas. He recently returned from taking a group on a California summer vacation trip.

“When they can look back and have a happy memory, it allows them to connect that to their lives and relationships to know they can trust people, that maybe life is worth living and there is opportunity for joy like that,” he said.

Gomez also took a group from Ohana to GCU every Monday of the last academic year to meet with students, witness what it’s like to be a college student and just have fun. At first, the youth said they didn’t want to feel as if they were a charity case. Gomez and GCU students made sure they didn’t.

"They allow healing if they trust people in life."

Isaiah Gomez

“So the youth are more and more loving it and saying they want to go to GCU,” he said.

He hopes to interest more Ohana youth in working toward GCU’s new Fostering Futures scholarships and continue Ohana’s affiliations on campus.

“As our Local Outreach students within the Spiritual Life Department have continued to serve the group homes that Isaiah is involved with, we see a growing passion amongst our students to love and care for those students,” Griffin said. “Isaiah has been a link to this important and growing ministry at GCU.”

As the group session at Ohana wraps up, the young women share their thoughts and dreams with Gomez.

One wants to learn to cope with flashbacks, and another wants to get a job. One wants to remember to attend therapy sessions, and another wants to graduate from high school.

“I want to start saving,” said one young woman, “for when I age out and can get a car.”

Words of inspiration on a pillow at Ohana.

Gomez knows none of this will be easy. That’s why he gives them his private number. He knows some could end up on the streets after they transition from foster care.

“Please call me,” he tells them. “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”

More than a half-dozen times, he’s gotten that call.

“It’s hard for them. They’ve been hurt by people who are supposed to love them. But they allow healing if they trust people in life,” he said.

He helped one young man who called him to get housing. He later got baptized and hopes to go to college in the fall.

“He texted me on Father’s Day and wrote, ‘You are the closest thing I had to a father.’ He is 23 and I am 27. But I was just someone in his life consistently with love and grace.

“It takes one healthy relationship to change the trajectory of a youth’s life with trauma.”

And to show them there is hope.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


Related content:

GCU News: Fostering Futures recipients meet the future

GCU NewsGCU unveils scholarships for Arizona foster children

GCU NewsFoster care experts put their heads, hearts together


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