Simone Green with Perley  Primary Fine Arts principal Jill VanDriessche.

Camp Is In Session

July 6, 2015

By Renee Peggs

For two local elementary school children, the University of Notre Dame Athletics Department has made a game-changing move. And we’re not just talking about sports.

Simone Green and Maurice Florence have accepted scholarships (which include full registration/participation fees and on-campus room and board) to the Notre Dame sports camps of their choice for a week this summer. Both recently completed the third grade at Perley Primary Fine Arts Academy, a South Bend public school just off the southwest corner of Notre Dame’s campus.

Each summer, the University plays host to nearly 10,000 young athletes – some only four years old — from all over the country for more than 60 sport camp sessions in 18 different varsity sports. The camps are held within the University’s state-of-the-art sports complexes under the supervision and expertise of the Notre Dame varsity coaching staffs, providing an unparalleled athletics experience for those who attend.

Summer camps are a fabulous way to get a competitive edge in a sports discipline at an early age, especially for anyone with aspirations of someday playing high-level athletics. But for so many young people, those dreams never move any nearer reality. “We’re an urban school and we have urban kids and their challenges are real,” says Jill VanDriessche, principal at Perley. “Some of [our students] are actually homeless and living in a shelter; many of them are underfed or have nobody paying attention to them at home.”

VanDriessche points out that the Golden Dome is visible from the north-facing windows of the school, “but it’s completely out of the realm of these kids’ understanding that Notre Dame would ever have anything to do with them. Attending college or, for some of them, even just venturing onto campus, either doesn’t occur to them or is so far out of reach that the parents just don’t even want to create that hope for their children because it seems like an impossibility.

“This scholarship opportunity proves otherwise. It’s so great of the University and the Athletics department to make this kind of opportunity available and to reach beyond campus to touch individual lives, right here in South Bend.”

“We’ve had a wonderful relationship for several years with the Athletics department at Notre Dame, and when they approached me to say they had these scholarship opportunities available we were just thrilled,” VanDriessche says.

She put together a committee of some of the teachers for the purpose of selecting the student recipients, but quickly realized she hadn’t given them enough guidance.

“When [the teachers] gave me their first list of students’ names, it was exactly the ones I thought they’d come up with,” she says. “What I wanted them to do instead was think about the kids who fly under the radar, who maybe don’t get perfect scores on every test but who are always working hard to do their very best every single day despite the significant obstacles some of them face — the kids who are beating the odds and demonstrating leadership potential even if they have no idea that that’s what they’re doing. What one is able to accomplish may not be possible for another, but they still push themselves to excel and we want to honor that and hold it up as an example.”

Simone and Maurice were honored with their very own school assemblies, a separate day for each, during which members of the Notre Dame Athletics department and coaching staff presented the scholarship certificates and relevant forms and paperwork.

Matt Weldy, director of Notre Dame camps, addressed the multitude of kindergarten through fourth grade students who filled the bleachers in the Perley gym: “Notre Dame is interested in kids just like you, like Simone and like Maurice. We’ll be back here in the fall looking for more of you who would be interested in attending Notre Dame sports camps, so make sure you’re thinking about what you need to do to be YOUR very best, and put effort toward those things every day, even during summer, because we want you all to be excellent students and excellent people.”

VanDriessche reiterates “we chose third graders so that they would come back next fall and be able to share their experience [of attending camp] with the younger kids.

“That’s a huge motivating factor for many of our students, and all they have to do is come in and do their very best every single day, representing themselves and Perley to the best of their ability.”

Being a professional athlete is the dream of many young people, but the percentage who actually make it that far is only a fraction of those who dream. VanDriessche realizes the camp scholarship is not about turning her young students into world-class athletes.

“We want these scholarships to change lives, to give these kids a taste of something that they would never even have known existed and provide them a concrete way to look ahead into the future with some hope for a better outcome than they were handed.” Her conviction and passion and dedication to these kids is unmistakable. “They don’t know what they’d want to study in college because they’re not thinking about attending college. This is about opening the door to what will hopefully be a long-term relationship for these families with the University. Sports is the door: that’s what the kids can understand and relate with. But it can lead them to so many other things they’d never have considered, and that’s my hope with these scholarships.”

Simone has chosen swimming camp. “I’ve never gone swimming before but I’ve done lots of land-sports, so I wanted to try something new.”

She’s looking forward to being in a real pool for the first time, but worried about being away from her family for a week. “I hope they come visit me, so I don’t get lonely,” she confesses softly.

VanDriessche discloses that some of Simone’s friends are aware she’d never been in a pool before and were quite concerned that Simone would sink. “I have done some serious damage control in reassuring her classmates that Notre Dame is not going to let anything happen to our Simone,” she laughs.

Maurice chose football camp, because he plays at recess and hopes to become good enough to play for Notre Dame someday.

Congratulations to both Simone and Maurice! We hope you have a fabulous experience at your camps and we can’t wait to see how your young lives unfold.