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Sanctuary will provide on-campus oasis for all


Meeting your life partner and earning your college degree are two of the most important moments in a person’s life.


Debbie Johnson experienced both at the University of North Florida.


It was 1986, and she was walking across campus after one of her M.B.A. classes when she saw him.


He was chatting with her sister outside the old UNF bookstore, and she immediately felt that spark.


“I thought to myself ‘who is this handsome guy talking to my sister?’” she said. “We hit it off immediately and started dating a while after that meeting. We haven’t been apart since.”


Debbie and Jay Johnson married in December 1987, and they credit the University for serving as their educational matchmaker.


And Debbie said she plans to strengthen her bonds with her husband — and her alma mater — in April during a vow renewal service for married couples who met their significant others on UNF’s campus.


The ceremony will take place on the site of the University’s proposed Sanctuary, a hub of on-campus spiritual growth for students, alumni, faculty and staff. Fundraising for the building’s construction is ongoing.


 “The whole idea is to connect the Sanctuary project with the UNF community in a real fundamental way,” she said. “What better way to make people connect with it than to ask all couples who met at UNF to come back to campus and renew their marriage vows? They all share this common thread — UNF — and the ceremony can help boost community involvement and lead to some additional fundraising to get the Sanctuary built. That way, others can share their own stories.”


The Sanctuary project         


Plans are in place for a non-denominational campus sanctuary and meditation building to be built near the University Center off the University’s Kernan Boulevard entrance. The eye-catching 5,000-square-foot sanctuary will seat between 200 and 250 people and will be situated adjacent to a scenic pond and nestled in UNF’s lush foliage.


The Sanctuary will present a tranquil location in which the University population can contemplate, meditate and bask in the beauty of the UNF campus away from the rigors of daily life, said Dr. Pierre Allaire, vice president of Institutional Advancement.


The on-campus oasis will support religious services, student ceremonies, weddings, lectures and musical performances. 


Allaire also said the Sanctuary will be a welcomed addition to campus .


“It will provide that special place at UNF where students and others can slow down their lives and refocus on their spiritual needs,” he said. “In today’s hectic world, we need more of these opportunities.”


Building a community focal point 


Dr. Jeff Coker, the dean of Undergraduate Studies, said UNF is working on multiple fronts to cultivate a stronger sense of community for students, faculty and staff. The Sanctuary factors strongly into building a sense of togetherness and boosting the first-year experience for students, especially for freshmen who will be required to live on campus starting in summer 2012.


“A community, by definition, supports the needs of its members, and the proposed sanctuary space offers us the chance to provide students with what we know is a real need — a place that honors the role of faith and spirituality in their lives,” Coker said. “Such a space, of course, would not in any way be considered as a space of advocacy, but one of support for those of any and all faiths and belief systems, and as such will hopefully enhancing the presence of diversity on campus.”


The Sanctuary was initially called the Hidden Lake Project because of its proximity to a large body of water near where Osprey Fountains stands today. But the location was moved during a recent update of the campus’ 10-year growth plan.


Zak Ovadia, director of campus planning, said the new proposed location offers more parking than the previous spot, a necessary factor to support such a facility. The location is also closer to the University Center, which could provide catering services should they be needed for a function, such as an on-campus wedding. 


As for the Sanctuary’s physical construction, Ovadia said the character of the facility will be different than the other buildings recently completed on campus. 


“Other recent buildings addressed the need for academic, research, administrative and recreation spaces,” Ovadia said. “This building will focus primarily on accommodating smaller events, such as music recitals, non-denominational gatherings, wedding ceremonies, informal student gatherings and such other events as may be appropriate. The design of the building is intended to be compatible with its natural setting, which includes a high-pitched roof, lots of glass overlooking the lake and the surrounding trees and natural materials used in the interior finishes.”


Renewing the vow        


The project is being funded by private donors and still needs a few more million dollars before construction commences. Allaire said he is actively searching for benefactors who want to help guide the spiritual growth of the University through gifts for construction. He believes UNF alumni will join in this effort.


A fundraising committee has been formed with close to a half dozen local leaders, including chairman Steve Halverson, Haskell Co. chief executive officer.


There might also be the opportunity to receive matching dollars to supplement private donations, Allaire said.


To help spur fundraising efforts, the University will host the vow renewal ceremony April 21 for UNF graduates who met their spouses while on campus. The plan is to have 25 to 40 couples renew their wedding vows on the site of the Sanctuary.


Chuck Hubbuch, assistant director of Physical Facilities, will work with his staff to place a sodded lawn and landscaped promenade near the proposed site for the ceremony.


“This is a way for us to boost the awareness of the Sanctuary project while bringing together UNF graduates who found their significant others on campus,” Allaire said. “It’s a good note to start off on for the Sanctuary.”


Johnson agrees. She said her marriage got off on a good note thanks to the University. And she thinks the Sanctuary can be the kind of place where future UNF students can meet their life partners.


“I just love UNF and the opportunities it gave me — educationally, emotionally and spiritually,” she said. “And the Sanctuary project reminds me of three of the most important things in my life — my love for my husband, my faith and my alma mater. It will be a peaceful place for UNF students for years to come.”