Oct. 27, 2011

By Daniel Byrne

As one of the world’s leading Catholic Universities, Notre Dame strives to teach its students about the importance of community service, and the Notre Dame Athletic Department is all in. Recently, the department created the Youth and Community Programs division to increase the involvement of Irish athletics with that same commitment to service and outreach.

Kevin Dugan was named manager of the program, a brand new division of the athletic department, and had big aspirations for the first year division. “Coming into this new position, I wanted to create an opportunity to share the Notre Dame student-athlete experience with the kids in the community,” says Dugan, who was a midfielder for the Irish lacrosse team and graduated in 2001. “I feel like the most powerful way to impact children in the community, from the standpoint of the athletic department, is to share with them the 360 degrees of human development that our student-athletes get.”

To accomplish the goal of developing the children in the community, Dugan looked to the five pillars of the athletic department established by Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick; excellence, education, faith, tradition, and community. Those core competencies laid the foundation for the program that would give children in the community a sense of the unique Notre Dame experience.

“As we looked at designing the program, we wanted to design a summer camp experience that would enable kids to benefit from an experience that touched upon all five of those things; teaching them about a commitment to excellence, educating them, teaching them about the importance of faith, sharing with them the Notre Dame tradition, and at the same time building community,” Dugan explains.

The first Irish Experience Camp took place this past summer over five consecutive Sunday afternoons in June and July. The camp partnered with the Robinson Center and St. Augustine Parish to bring in 50 kids, grades 5-8, from the northeast and west side neighborhoods of South Bend. The events of the camp took place at the Purcell Pavilion and various athletic facilities on the Notre Dame campus.

“We would have the kids come in and share a Notre Dame athletic tradition and turn that tradition into a platform to educate the kids,” Dugan recalls. “We would take for example the `Play Like a Champion Today’ tradition and we would turn that into a teaching point for children. In taking Notre Dame athletic traditions and turning them into teaching points for young kids, we are sharing the tradition of Notre Dame sports and at the same time impacting young kids with an important message and educational tool.”

To support the teaching points, the camp featured several guest speakers including a nutritionist who spoke about healthy living and several current Irish athletes who spoke about the level of commitment it takes for them to compete at the highest level. Because of their status as a collegiate athlete, the messages communicated by athletes are more likely to embed within a young athlete’s mind. “That starts to resonate with a kid in a way that hearing it from their school teacher doesn’t,” Dugan describes. “When they hear it coming from somebody that they look up to as a hero, as a role model, it sinks into their minds in a much more powerful way.”

Joey Brooks, a junior on the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, was given the opportunity to pass on some wisdom that has helped him become the successful athlete he is today.

“I actually gave a few formal talks to the kids and my main message through it all was that they have the power to do whatever they choose to do in life and to never let anything stop you from chasing your dream,” Brooks says. “I wanted them to know that, no matter what, as long as they keep moving and believing then they will succeed in anything in life.”

Although there was plenty of learning at the Irish Experience Camp, there also was time for the boys and girls to hit the playing field. The campers played flag football, basketball, soccer and kickball alongside the Irish varsity athletes. For Dugan, these were many visible moments of tremendous growth for the young campers and their mentors.

“It was a beautiful thing to see the Notre Dame athletes in a position where they could so naturally impact the children in a positive way,” Dugan reflects. “It really put the athletes in a natural element where they could really interact with the kids in such a comfortable way that fosters such good and authentic relationships with the young kids. It was a revolving learning experience; the athletes were learning from the kids and the kids were learning from the athletes.”

Dugan, along with the athlete mentors, observed how the kids grew more comfortable each week and began to ask about how the Notre Dame athletes got to such a high level of competition.

“That’s where that component of excellence was really revealed to these young kids,” says Dugan. “They learned about how hard our athletes work in the classroom, how hard they work out on the field and in the weight room, to get to the point where they are a student-athlete at Notre Dame. I think for the kids it was a real wakeup call, realizing that this did not happen overnight and it did not come easy.”

On the final day of the Irish Experience Camp, families were invited to attend the field day and barbeque. The time families spent communicating with each other about the camp and living the experience helped develop another bond essential to their growth, the relationship with their families.

One of the featured speakers of the camp was South Sudanese native Ring Aguek, who shared his life as a refugee trapped in the northern lands of Sudan for fourteen years and his eventual escape during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Aguek, who has worked as a custodian at the university since 2003, brought his ten year old daughter, nine year old twin boys and six year old son to the Irish Experience Camp, and witnessed the positive interaction between the athletes and campers.

“It was a very wonderful experience I had last summer,” says an enthused Aguek. “I think most of the kids, including my kids, really benefitted from the athletes. With my kids, I tell them that if you have somebody as a role model to show you how to do something, you will be able to follow that person. You know them; they know you and they are committed to you.”

Not only was this a memorable summer for his children, but Aguek also was grateful for the opportunity to meet with members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team who were involved with the Playing for Peace Initiative. The event last December at Notre Dame included a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and a peace rally to raise awareness at about Sudan.

“It was really generous of them to do that even though they don’t see the South Sudanese excluding me,” Aguek reflects. “It was really something unbelievable and something generous and showed great kindness from them. I was very happy about it.” Seeing the success of the Irish Experience camp, Dugan and the athletic department have great confidence about future programs, such as the Irish Experience League, that connect Notre Dame athletes to the youth of the surrounding South Bend community through flag football.

As for the Irish athletes, they are well aware of the impact they are making on the community and will continue to participate in the service of today’s youth who are eager for their time and attention.

“It gives a sense of fulfillment that cannot be matched because there is something about giving your time and efforts to better someone else’s day, week, and life,” says Brooks. “That is the mission of Christ and as a Notre Dame athlete I feel as though it is important to give until it hurts. The reward is far beyond anything I could’ve imagined.”