By Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau

A herd of purple-clad Grand Canyon University staff, students and athletes turned out in force on Tuesday – GCU Day – to bring smiles, cheer and a helping hand to children attending the annual Back to School Clothing Drive.

High fives and laughter were the order for the day at the Back to School Clothing Drive. (Photo by Travis Neely)

The GCU volunteers joined scores of others who lovingly donate their time and effort to bring joy and essential belongings to the estimated 5,000 Phoenix-area children visiting GCU Arena during the four-day event this week.

The children responded with delight to Thunder, Cheer and Dance team members and soccer and volleyball players whose contagious energy added spark to an already electric atmosphere.

“There’s a lot more excitement in the air today,” said Carla Gentles, a volunteer who assists her husband, Karl, the organization’s executive director. “The cheerleaders (and dancers) always bring a little magic. And the kids just love Thunder.”

This is not your typical clothing drive. The Back to School Clothing Drive, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is the culmination of months of work and fundraising that involves 300 schools and thousands of volunteers.

Dr. Kim LaPrade is joined by Thunder as she signs her book, “Thunder’s Vision.”

It’s a Christmas-like event that transforms the Arena into a mall-like wonderland with separate, merchandise-filled “stores” whose plentiful wares they receive for free.

“This is such an awesome partnership that we have with GCU,” Gentles said.

Every girl and boy receives shirts, shorts, socks, sneakers,  scarves, bookmarks, hats and sweatshirts.

They also get to choose two age-appropriate books from among those stacked high on tables, books whose colorful covers and exciting titles beckoned.

This year, they got a special treat on GCU Day: Sitting at a corner table with a big smile on her face, College of Education Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade personally autographed and handed out copies of her book, “Thunder’s Vision.”

“It’s Thunder’s story,” LaPrade said. “It’s really about how he found his purpose at GCU.”

Getting a chance to meet LaPrade was inspirational to students.

She flipped open the book to a page depicting a young version of Thunder wearing a red shirt and blue overalls.

“I love this picture of him,” she said. “He’s small here. He goes to all the different colleges at GCU trying to find his purpose.”

Several kids saw the book and said they want to be a writer when they grow up. “I’ve never met an author before!” one boy said excitedly.

Even before entering the arena, spirits were high. The shyest of children couldn’t help but perk up when a phalanx of pompom-waving cheerleaders shouted an enthusiastic welcome.

“Hi, guys! Hi! Welcome to GCU!” they called out.

It was even harder to keep a straight face when a silly looking, man-size antelope – Thunder, the star of LaPrade’s book and every event he attends – offered a hoof for high fives.

Thunder and members of the Cheer and Dance teams helped Executive Director Karl Gentles liven the proceedings.

“They’re wonderful,” Aubrey Daniels, a kindergartner at the Academy of Excellence, said of the cheerleaders, dancers and Thunder. “They make me feel special.”

Becky Heller, a freshman Cheer team member, said she loves kids of all ages.

“Giving back to the community this way is such a wonderful experience,” Heller said.

Taharqua Johnson, a sixth-grader at the Academy of Excellence, told GCU Dance team member Allison Bretzman: “You are so pretty.”

You are so pretty,” Bretzman said back.

Johnson seemed in awe as she picked out a blue dress, yellow-and-red knit hat and blue-and-white knit bag from the “Stitches of Love” section. The last stop in the arena, Stitches of Love contains rack upon rack and table after table filled with brightly colored, beautiful garments hand-stitched by crafty volunteers who sew nearly 50,000 pieces a year.

Susan Juetten (left), a National Charity League volunteer from the East Valley, bonded with Taharqua Johnson. (Photo by Laurie Merrill)

“I appreciate everything,” Johnson said in soft voice.

Susan Juetten, a National Charity League volunteer from the East Valley, was assigned the enjoyable role of leading Johnson to the various clothing spaces.

“You have beautiful eyes,” Johnson told Juetten, a fourth-grade teacher in the Kyrene School District.

“So do you,” Juetten replied.

Upstairs, volunteers like GCU soccer player Rachel Mina used oversize models of teeth to teach children proper brushing techniques.

“Use circular motions, nice and soft,” she said as children wielding oversize plastic brushes plied their skills.

Phoenix Firefighter Nate McCovery, who was handing out pencil erasers and stickers, asked Johnson if she is a good student.

“I am now,” she responded.

“Learn from the past,” McCovery said. “What’s important is how you pick up from a fall.”

Johnson said over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich a few minutes later that she has changed her work habits and is now industrious and earns good grades.

“Some people choose to sit on the couch and eat chips,” she said. “Some people choose to study. I always choose to study.”

The event ends Thursday, and there’s still time to volunteer. Click here for information.

Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected]