A Promise Kept
Two days before the Wedgwood church shooting, GCU was celebrating. The college was marking its 50th anniversary, and two second-grade classes from Granada Primary School had been invited to sing “Happy Birthday.”
The teachers were both GCU graduates, but Granada had been targeted for other reasons. Most of its students were from low-income families, some of whom spoke little English, and many ended up at poor-performing high schools. It was a community GCU wanted to reach more effectively.
The children came, sang off-key, ate the sack lunches the college prepared for them, and went back to elementary school.
Then Sydney Browning was killed.
Grand Canyon mourned; there were still faculty and even some former students on campus who knew Sydney personally. The college held memorial services and honored Sydney on campus, but Stafford felt it wasn’t enough. Then one day he remembered the Granada students, who were so much like the youth Sydney spent her life serving, and the idea for the scholarship came to him.
The college’s board embraced the idea, and the school established mentoring and tutoring programs to help ensure the students’ success. Just over a year later, Stafford presented the offer to the now third-graders and their parents.
“I don’t think they fully grasped the magnitude of what was being offered to them,” says Kristi Thomas, who taught one of the two classes offered scholarships. “In many cases, there was a language barrier.”
Lisa Mabbitt, the other class’ teacher, says she and Thomas were also in disbelief. “I don’t think any of us even realized that 10 years from now all of this would transpire,” Mabbitt says. “I remember Kristi and I saying, I hope they stay on top on this. I hope they stay in contact with Grand Canyon.”
The outreach started strong, with students participating in tutoring programs and summer camps. But soon the students started going their separate ways and by the time they reached middle school, GCU had lost touch with most of them.
The Baptist university itself was in trouble. More than $17 million in debt, GCU was days from closing its doors when a businessman purchased it in 2004 and converted it into an independent, for-profit college. Mueller says the college is financially healthy now, thanks to growing online enrollment. Roughly 3,000 students take traditional courses on-campus while another 37,000 are enrolled in online master’s or doctoral degree programs.
Jessica Reyes says her mother never gave up on the college. She called the school regularly to remind them of the offer and eventually connected with admissions counselor Jennifer Hatch, who took it upon herself to see if GCU would honor its commitment.
Mueller says reneging on the offer was never a consideration. He says outreach is part of the college’s DNA, pointing to regular initiatives such as community clean-up days and second-language programs for immigrants.
“It was something we were going to do as soon as I heard about it,” Mueller says of the scholarship. “The Christian mission of the institution has always been something that’s been alive and real, and Sydney’s Kids is just a reflection of all those other things.”
It took a year and a half, but Hatch and two students’ mothers tracked down 15 of the original students who wanted to take GCU up on its offer. Many of the 62 could not be found, but Mueller says the scholarship will remain available to them.
Shannon Carter says Sydney’s Kids is a tangible reminder that her older sister’s life wasn’t lived in vain. “There’s a richness now in her death that I didn’t expect,” Carter says. “Good people die every day, and because of different circumstances, they’re not always recognized in that way.”
As a third-grader, Reyes didn’t understand the opportunity she’d been given. But she trusted her mother, so whenever they’d drive by GCU she’d point and say, “That’s my school.” Today she’s a freshman with plans to become a pediatrician. “It’s overwhelming to think how I have been given this so easily,” she says. “It’s just a blessing.”
At a dinner to honor Sydney last September, Reyes was one of 15 students who received plaques as a symbol of the gift they’d been given. It’s made of glass and inscribed with a paraphrase of Gen. 50:20, words that help GCU make some sense of Sydney’s tragic death: “What man intended for evil, God intended for good.”
Adrienne S. Gaines is news editor for Charisma magazine.
To learn more about Sydney Browning and her scholarship, visit browning.charismamag.com
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