June 4, 2015

by Renee Peggs –

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For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of all things. – Hebrews 3:4

Last fall, University of Notre Dame student-athletes began a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of St. Joseph County to build a house for Gladys Muchemi and her children, Ben and Charlynne.

How did they go from driving golf balls to driving nails, from lifting weights to lifting truss beams, from hitting the window in the spread offense to cutting a window out of a wall?

All things are possible.

At first, they may not have realized the significance of the endeavor at hand, but eventually it became clear. In what promises to become part of Fighting Irish legend, one student-athlete was overheard expressing understandable incredulity: “Wait, we’re building this for someone to actually live in?!”

Thank God for Gerry Gardetto. As a Habitat employee and site manager for the Muchemi build, Gardetto has played the role of teacher, mentor, cheerleader and miracle-worker in overseeing every detail of the construction.

“What often happens at a build-site is a Three Stooges-type act, where someone is carrying a two-by-four on their shoulder and they swing it around and clock someone else,” Gardetto says, and you know he’s seen it all. “But these student-athletes are already used to watching for their teammates, making sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.

“Their obstacle was embracing the humility at having never done anything like this before: they are the best in the country at their sport and they’ve rarely failed at anything, but they’re concerned because they bent a nail. They had no confidence because they had no experience doing anything like this.

“As the `teacher,’ it’s my job to give them the confidence that they can actually do what needs to be done. It was neat to see them loosen up and start teasing each other and then finally getting the hang of it by the end of their shift. They’re dedicated and they know how to learn; it was awesome to watch.”

Not that Gardetto didn’t have his concerns. “These kids rely so heavily on their hands in order to play their sport… I was worried that the coaches would kill me if one of `em accidently smashed a finger or thumb!”

Gardetto’s confidence in the student-athletes was reciprocated in kind. “You put Gerry in charge of anyone, and sooner or later a house will materialize,” says David Lowe, a senior on the men’s golf team. With Katherine McManus (junior, women’s lacrosse), Lowe heads up the community service efforts of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC).

Lowe emphasized the complete group effort necessary to execute on this project. He and McManus have spent countless hours rallying their fellow student-athletes, coordinating schedules, communicating important information, renegotiating variables, collaborating with ND staff and Habitat staff on every facet, to ensure that, yes, people can actually live in this house.

“That all our efforts have come to fruition in a very tangible way — there is a house — is really a testament to how hard everyone has worked this year,” Lowe states.

There is a house…

Webster’s defines house as a building for human habitation, especially one that is lived in by a family. Synonyms: residence, home, dwelling, roof over one’s head, abode, domicile.

But God is the builder…

“While it’s a great project for us to be involved with and to bring us closer together across teams, at the end of the day it’s about Gladys and her children and not about us at all” Lowe continues insightfully. “This Habitat project has the greater purpose of using what we have and who we are in order to be the human face of Notre Dame and to build a real relationship with someone, in this case, the Muchemi family. Anyone can do volunteer work, but to partner with someone, to get to know them and be a part of their lives and invite them to be a part of yours, that’s the real benefit here, and the real treasure.”

The athletics department at Notre Dame is upheld by and actively promotes Five Pillars — education, excellence, faith, community and tradition — a worthy foundation for any structure.

“When you look at the Five Pillars,” McManus explains, “it makes complete sense that this is the kind of thing we’re doing: forming relationships as we serve our community and investing our time so that those relationships last long beyond the service hours.”

Gardetto corroborates: “Doing this build has helped me understand that the student-athletes at Notre Dame are concerned with long-term commitment and significant transformational experiences that are life-changing for them and for those with whom they serve.”

“Some of these kids will become big-time players in a professional athletics capacity, they’ll make a lot of money and have a lot of success. My hope is that when they reach that pinnacle, they will remember what they participated in here at Notre Dame with this build and that it’ll transform them to realize that with their status they have even more to give, wherever they’re living, and to remember that they have already made that kind of a difference.”

Others have noticed.

“The City of South Bend is delighted these student-athletes have chosen to give back to our community in this way,” says Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Much of college learning happens outside the classroom and participating in the Habitat build helps them develop a relationship with our community. It’s been great to see [these] Notre Dame students caring about South Bend, and we thank them for their service.”

Since 2001, the number of Indiana families living in poverty has nearly doubled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.6 percent of St. Joe county residents and 27 percent of South Bend residents live in poverty.

“That is what makes the work of Habitat so significant,” explains executive director Jim Williams. “We are the only home-ownership option for very low-income families. For them, getting a mortgage is nearly impossible. Most are relegated to renting sub-standard apartments and spending more than one-third of their income on housing. Our work helps stabilize families and has a positive financial impact on the community. But the heart of Habitat is hope. We give people the hope of a better life through home-ownership and all of the stability and sense of community that comes with it.”

Home is where the hope is.