Revitalization project in Arizona aims to return the neighborhoods surrounding a university to their middle-class roots

In west Phoenix, Arizona‘s Berkley Square community, Marvin Scott stands proudly in front of his white-picket-fenced home. He knows a little about neighborhood transformation and revitalization.

When Scott moved into his 1950s-era ranch-style home in 2019, he didn’t waste time sprucing it up.

The white picket fence would be joined by a new roof and windows, exterior paint, insulation, a driveway, back patio and a block fence that, Scott said, “changed the whole dynamic of the house.”

He couldn’t have completed many of those improvement projects without Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona and Grand Canyon University.

Resident Marvin Scott, whose Berkley Square home has received numerous repairs from GCU and Habitat for Humanity, gives direction to Lopes Go Local student volunteers during the neighborhood cleanup.

His home almost looks like a brand-new home,” said GCU alumna Andrea Northup, Habitat’s Assistant Director of Sponsor Relations.

The home-building nonprofit and the country’s largest Christian university embarked on their eighth year of partnership in one of the largest neighborhood revitalization projects of its kind in the nation.

The vision: To return the communities surrounding the University to their middle-class roots.

In those eight years, more than 1,335 home improvement projects have been completed at 519 homes, with those repairs funded for the most part by $5.5 million allocated to the initiative by GCU staff.

It’s a shared vision that continued Saturday during GCU’s twice-a-year Lopes Go Local, a whirlwind home renovation blitz in which 275 students descended on 13 nearby homes to complete 16 mostly painting and landscaping projects – though in the case of the Berkley Square neighborhood, students joined in a community cleanup.

The cleanup was one of the many events that has evolved from those initial restoration projects on Scott’s home that Habitat and GCU completed as part of their community-university partnership.

Scott was familiar with Berkley Square before buying a house there.

Early in his career, the longtime educator taught at Montebello School on 27th Avenue, now Alhambra Traditional School, which is so close to his home that he can see it from his street corner.

At that time, I was around this neighborhood a lot because a lot of the kids I taught lived here,” said Scott, a Phoenician who also taught in Istanbul, Turkey, for five years before returning home. He is now the program and community engagement director for Rosie’s House, a free music academy for children in inner-city Phoenix.

A neighbor told him about the Habitat-GCU initiative and now, “I encourage neighbors to take advantage of the program.

Along with another Berkley Square resident, Scott has rekindled the neighborhood association, which is now working with the city in other neighborhood revitalization efforts.

The group has been working with Constituent and Community Organizer Emmanuel Gallardo-Sanidad in Phoenix City Councilwoman Betty Guardado’s office.

It’s been really great for our neighborhood because, with his help, we’ve gotten alleys gated through the Phoenix Gated Alley Program. … There’s terrible activity going on up and down 27th Avenue, so Phoenix Police are participating with us now that we have residents energized,” Scott said.

For Lopes Go Local, those energized residents walked up and down Berkley Square streets to pick up trash two-by-two alongside high-energy GCU students who blanketed the area in purple. The city’s Neighborhood Services Department supplied the cleanup with trash bins and other tools to get the job done.

Sophomore elementary education major Margherita Flaherty, a third-time Lopes Go Local volunteer, said the perception of west Phoenix can be negative. But having left the comforts of campus and volunteering in the surrounding neighborhoods over the past three years, she has felt the same sense of community that she has felt back home in her own small town.

It’s really cool seeing how much support there is, and to be able to go out here and help them,” Flaherty said.

First time Lopes Go Local volunteer Rachel Rose, an advertising/marketing sophomore, said “Being out here, being able to clean up … it gives me a better perspective” on who the University’s neighbors are – they are good people, like Scott. “I didn’t know if I would expect to meet Marvin in this neighborhood, but he’s a nice guy.

Pam Afeldt, a Berkley Square resident picking up trash along the road, said of GCU’s student volunteers, “It’s good to have help.”

It just amazing to me that we’re into year eight, almost nine,” Northup said, and how she has seen the dynamic slowly change in these communities. “Neighborhood transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and neighborhood development and rehabilitation is not glamorous. It takes a lot of time, a lot of investment. For GCU to stay committed, it speaks to the depth of dedication GCU has for the community.

Just a four-minute drive away from the Berkley Square neighborhood cleanup, dozens more of the 275 Lopes Go Local student volunteers fanned out to paint and landscape three adjacent homes on Elm Street, just a few blocks from the University’s main gate.

With a 7-foot-tall sunflower beckoning near a pergola, cherry tomatoes ripening on the stems nearby, along with green onions, potatoes and cantaloupes, the front yard of America Aguilar speaks volumes about one of her favorite hobbies – gardening – and the pride she has in her home.

Students shoveled barrelsful of landscape rock and smoothed them into place.

The mountain of rock won’t go down,” said senior psychology major and business minor Naomi Luper, student lead of the Purple Stars, one of a dozen teams changing the landscape, literally, at Lopes Go Local.

Why she returns to serve, year after year: “I get to serve alongside my Local Outreach leaders and, truly, it’s the Lord’s calling to each of us. … And the community around us? There are so many amazing people. … You build relationships,” Luper said.

Jacob Friesen, a sophomore biology/premed major, on a break between shoveling rock, said, “It’s an easy way to get involved and give back and be part of something bigger than myself.

Aguilar has reached out to Habitat before to complete work on the roof and the air conditioning unit.

If they don’t help me, I can’t do it,” she said of the repairs and spoke highly of the University’s students: “They’re really nice, really respectful,” and of course, they can shovel a mountain of rock in no time.

Among the volunteers at Aguilar’s home was GCU President Brian Mueller.

He spoke about the many ways the University is committed to the community, from its Learning Lounge tutoring program for K-12 students to its full-tuition Students Inspiring Students neighborhood scholarship, the partnership with the Phoenix Police Department to increase safety, the CityServe program to supply families with needed household goods and other items, and GCU’s commitment to creating jobs.

Just across Elm Street, neighbor Alicia Sanchez, paint roller in hand, is painting her green home white. She knows Aguilar and another neighbor a few houses down, Maricela Medina, who also was having repairs done to her house as part of Lopes Go Local.

We need the neighborhood to be more beautiful, to look more beautiful,” she said.

And Scott can relate.

Photos courtesy of Grand Canyon University.

This article by Lana Sweeten-Shults originally appeared on the Grand Canyon University website. Reprinted here (with minor edits) by permission.

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