Kassandra Elson couldn’t believe she was watching a Grand Canyon University women’s basketball game on Tuesday night. She described her participation in the partnership between the Lopes and the Phoenix Rescue Mission (PRM) as “crazy’’ because less than a year ago she was incarcerated. In her case, the Christian-based PRM is aptly named.
“I came to Phoenix Rescue Mission from prison,’’ Elson said. “My outlook on life was really hopeless. I just knew that if I didn’t do something immediately that I would end up back in prison, so I came to their Changing Lives Center praying that there would be some kind of hope there for me. Now things are going well. I am a leader on the campus and I am doing things that I never thought I would do.’’
Cheering for the Lopes had never been on Elson’s radar.
“It is crazy to think I am coming to something like this, a GCU basketball game,’’ she said. “This is how I am spending my free time rather than doing things that put me in prison.’’
As fans placed toys into the boxes in the lobby of GCU Arena, Elson reflected on her childhood as the oldest of six children in a low-income family.
“I totally understand. I know that not having that great of a Christmas really affects your life, and you remember that stuff forever,’’ she said. “So the fact there is a toy drive to help people get presents for their children is really great because the children will remember something different than just having a poor Christmas.’’
Along with collecting toys, games and household items for PRM’s Winter Wonderland, GCU and PRM were united by Jesse Dalla Riva, who gave a compelling pregame prayer.
Dalla Riva overcame drug addiction and homelessness through PRM. He has worked at PRM full-time the past four years while majoring in counseling with an emphasis in substance abuse addiction at GCU.
“I was motivated to give back to the community that I was once part of in that I am addict myself,’’ said Dalla Riva, who plans to graduate in April.
With his wife, Blake, and their 19-month-old son, Jaxson, looking on, Dalla Riva prayed for the students and the athletes, adding, “God, I pray for all of those who are suffering and in need tonight.’’
“It was a real surprise that they asked me to lead the prayer,’’ he said. “I didn’t expect it and I was really happy to do it because of what this school has meant to me along with the opportunities they offered me and my family. ‘’
The connection between GCU and the Christian-based PRM was further strengthened by a halftime video that shared PRM’s mission. In addition, Nikki Smith, Donor Events and Engagement Coordinator for PRM, urged the GCU community to make donations.
“Unfortunately, a lot of our children have come from traumatic situations,’’ she said. “Some of them are hopeful for Christmas, but others are not. They do not have high expectations for what might be under the tree, so something like this gives them hope. It lets them know that other people care that they matter. It is a joy to change a child’s life and perspective, so it is a big gift.’’
GCU women’s basketball fans Mike Carley and Sue Hunter happily donated toys and dish cloths.
“Anywhere we are we try to make sure we help out,’’ Hunter said. “It is just part of what we do.’’
The toys, games and household goods, which will be collected until Thursday, Dec. 13, at Building 71 (contact Sue Boyle) and Building 26 on the main campus, (contact Debbie Accomazzo), will be distributed on Saturday at the Winter Wonderland, where parents can “shop” for their children.
Smith summarized, “Events like this go a long way to giving people hope and helping them to transform their lives.’’