Nov. 10, 2014

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A Home for the Holidays

The University of Notre Dame Athletics Department and Habitat for Humanity team up to make the dream of home ownership for the Muchemi family a reality.

By Renee Peggs

Unless the Lord builds the house, they who build it labor in vain. (Psalm 127:1)
In partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Notre Dame student-athletes are exchanging hockey sticks for hammers, helmets for hard hats and swim goggles for safety glasses as they come together in a year-long start-to-finish initiative to build a house for Gladys Muchemi and her children.

While it’s nothing new for college students or even student-athletes to volunteer their time to a worthy cause, this particular build is unique in that it has the potential to involve all 750 student-athletes at Notre Dame.

The project began three years ago as nothing but a brainstorm among members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), a group of student representatives from all 26 Division I athletics teams at Notre Dame. Max Lachowecki, SAAC president for the 2014-15 school year and men’s soccer representative, remembers the initial conversations around this idea, dating back to his freshman year.

“We wanted to do a service project that would not only be highly visible in the South Bend community but that would also invite and require the participation of every single student-athlete on campus,” he explains. “We talked about building a house, but no one ever actually dreamed that we’d be able to pull it off. To see this coming now to fruition, after so many years of dreaming and planning, is really remarkable.”

Until this point, the largest and most prominent service project had been a series of mural paintings that Notre Dame student-athletes had created with and for students at Perley Primary Academy, located near the southwest corner of campus. While members of several athletics teams were involved in that project, and it stands as a highly visible testament to the relationship between the University and the wider community, the scope of that project was much more limited than that of the Habitat build.

Among the challenges of the Habitat project has been the coordination of schedules. Katherine McManus, SAAC co-chair of community service and women’s lacrosse representative, points out that student-athletes have rigorous schedules and many demands on their time, making it nearly impossible to plan something that involves all of them.

“Certain teams [traditionally participate in] individualized community service activities because it’s just easiest,” says McManus. “With this Habitat project, the full-year [initiative] will allow us time to mix up schedules and have student-athletes from all the different teams working together. That kind of cross-team camaraderie is one of the goals SAAC is continually working toward, and to do it by building a house for a local family is really special.”

Her co-chair, David Lowe, who represents men’s golf on SAAC, has taken responsibility for the Google doc that lists all the times student-athletes are needed on the build-site. What could easily be a logistical nightmare has actually been ably handled by Lowe. He sees it as an opportunity to reach out to student-athletes on other teams and challenge them to get as many of their teammates as possible to sign up.

And the response has been overwhelming. So far, student-athletes from the volleyball, hockey, men’s golf, men’s and women’s lacrosse, baseball, women’s soccer, men’s and women’s fencing and men’s basketball teams have participated in the project.

The first opportunity to work on the house was a blustery Saturday morning at the beginning of fall break. More than two dozen student-athletes met in the stadium parking lot, braving fierce winds and frozen drizzle, to meet the Muchemi family for the first time and to begin the work of framing the exterior walls. Site manager Gerry Gardetto had more than enough energy for those who were still not quite awake.

“You guys are athletes, right?!” Gardetto shouted as he gathered the student-athletes around a pile of studs. “You want leverage! You’re not using your putter today: I don’t wanna see any of this tippy-tap nonsense with your hammers. You line it up and WHAM! One – two – three swings and you move on to the next nail. Easy. Let’s get started!”

Gardetto has been a journeyman carpenter for more than twenty years, and is in his third year of work with Habitat for Humanity in St. Joseph County. His expertise and enthusiasm made him an instant hit with those gathered for the wall-build.

Wearing safety goggles and carpenter’s pouches, the student-athletes grabbed hammers and nails and got to work. They may be among the elite of their sport but driving nails was another matter entirely. Hilarity mixed with frustration, and bent nails soon littered the parking lot.

“My board won’t stay straight!” cried a women’s lacrosse student-athlete. “OK, we’re taking a mulligan on this one and starting over, just like on a par-three,” laughed a group of golfers. “Wow, he made it look so easy,” said another student-athlete, grimacing at his own handiwork.

But together, they got it done. Laughing and teasing one another, the student-athletes nonetheless worked diligently under the watchful eye of Gardetto and other professionals who work for Habitat. The walls were framed and stacked, ready for transport to the build site. The sense of pride in their collective accomplishment was unmistakable.

Rockne isn’t the only one to build a house…

Stay tuned for more details in upcoming features on the Muchemi family, the fall-break blitz-build, and other stories as we bring you the first ever student-athlete Habitat House!