March 16, 2015
By Renee Peggs
The student-athletes of Notre Dame – nearly all of them – are incarnating the kingdom of heaven. For Gladys Muchemi, the hope of home ownership seemed no bigger than a tiny seed. In partnership with Habitat for Humanity of St. Joseph County, the members of 26 Division I Irish athletics teams are nurturing that tiny seed, turning hope into a real home for Muchemi and her children.
Nearly three years ago, Mike Harrity (senior associate athletics director for student-athlete services) recalls members of the student-athlete advisory council (SAAC) beginning to express interest in a new paradigm for community service projects. Many teams had their own causes, and under the guidance of Student Welfare and Development (SWD), many student-athletes were participating in service initiatives in small groups as well.
What student-athletes came to understand was that they wanted to build lasting relationships with those whom they were serving, and with each other. That awareness amounted to a desire to focus on transformation through service leadership as opposed to transaction in simply racking up volunteer hours.
“Our student-athletes want to give back to the community,” acknowledges senior deputy athletics director Missy Conboy, “and we as athletics department staff want to offer our campus resources to benefit the northeast neighborhood especially. The dream started there.”
Conboy and Harrity, along with other senior athletics staff members, began research into the process by which Habitat houses are built.
The first hurdle was how to pay for it.
“Countless people were coming to us with ideas for what to do with the money from the Adidas liquidation,” shares athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “Rather than fielding all those, I suggested we come up with our own, something we’re really committed to. I wanted to use those funds in a focused way instead of having it go to twenty different causes or projects.”
Harrity explains the second hurdle: “As an advisor to a leadership group, you don’t want to [offer] an idea that can never happen. We wanted to do some preliminary work to make sure this wouldn’t end up being a futile endeavor. We met with Development, talked to Habitat executives and studied a build process down at Indiana University [Bloomington, Ind.].”
As SAAC President, senior Max Lachoweski (men’s soccer) has seen the mustard seed sprout and grow to fruition though faith.
“It’s amazing to have watched [this initiative] progress from the beginning: to have watched SAAC transform from individual teams doing a little service project here or there to every team being involved in something this big and lasting. We’ve been making progress slowly but surely toward this kind of cross-team cohesion and relationship-building. While that’s a less visible legacy than a house, it’s one that also makes me very proud.”
The third hurdle has been the sheer logistical process of coordinating schedules between all the teams and the Habitat staff… and the weather.
“Last fall,” Harrity shares, “everyone said `this is a great idea and sounds amazing, but how do we do it?’ How do you get hockey players coming in to put walls together? How do you have enough people on the build site to get the task accomplished but not more than can actually be efficient?”
“The student-athlete Habitat build has become a part-time job for Katherine McManus,” says Claire VeNard, program director for SWD. McManus, a junior on the women’s lacrosse team, is the co-chair of SAAC’s community outreach initiatives. “Given all the demands of her team’s schedule, her commitment to every detail of the build has been incredible to witness.”
Even with the infrastructure that Habitat is able to provide, there were still plenty of obstacles to designing and executing a build schedule that would be workable for approximately 750 student-athletes across the 26 teams.
With support from the athletics department staff, McManus and her co-chair David Lowe (senior, baseball) created a Google Doc detailing all the hands-on work from ground zero to getting the house framed and ready to withstand winter weather. They invited leaders from each athletics team to schedule their teammates for blocks of time to work on the house during what became known as Blitz Week (the University’s fall break in October).
The mustard seed has matured. Where once there was a tiny hope toward a far-off dream, now there is a sturdy dwelling which is on-track to become a family home in just a few short months.
Swarbrick notes that the student-athlete Habitat build fulfills each of the Five Pillars which comprise the foundation and goals of the athletics department at Notre Dame: “They learn something so there’s an educational component. Building a real house that people will live in – you want to do that really well, so that serves the value of excellence. Tradition is honored in the sense that Notre Dame has long been about service.
“Talking to the student-athletes, hearing that they wanted to stay longer and take a second shift during the blitz build: that’s about building community among them. Clearly the gratitude and delight expressed by the Muchemi family speak to service of the broader community.
“At Notre Dame, we view issues of faith not just as religious doctrine but with the broader ideal of how God is reflected in every person: you serve your faith when you serve others. I see that very much in this project.”
Conboy adds, “It’s hard to engage the community in classrooms or dorms but we in the athletics department have an opportunity to do what is more difficult for others. Our student-athletes have the most meaningful connection with the South Bend community because they’re the heroes, the role models: people follow their sport and know who they are.”
Bringing it full circle, Swarbrick concludes, “Our commitment back to the community, then, is to engage in meaningful service, and this Habitat initiative is a great manifestation of that. This is just one among a whole host of ways in which our student-athletes carry out this vision.”
The fulfillment of any vision requires careful planning, adequate resources, capable personnel and a measure of faith. With faith, even a dream can become a reality.