Feb. 23, 2009
Notre Dame, Ind – For many University of Notre Dame student-athletes, being an outstanding runner, an honor student and an accomplished singer would be enough. But not for Irish senior long distance runner Heidi Rocha. The Palmdale, Calif., native is always looking to do more and give back to others.
When Rocha, a member of Notre Dame’s 2007 BIG EAST outdoor track championship team, has a break from school and track, she can likely be found trying to help others around the community, around the United States and around the world. Serving the community has been a very important part of life for her, since she was young.
“When I was young my parents preached service to me.” Rocha said. “They always had me involved in a lot of different activities, and since coming to Notre Dame my eyes have been opened to a lot of social problems. Seeing this has inspired me to continue doing service work.”
She has volunteered at South Bend schools and participated in Notre Dame service trips to Appalachia and the inner city of Chicago during school breaks. Most recently she traveled to Ecuador to serve. For Rocha even her summer jobs are a way to give back. She spent last summer in Utah, teaching Latino students to speak English.
Charmelle Green, Notre Dame assistant athletics director for student-athlete development, has had the opportunity to get to know many Notre Dame student-athletes. A primary function of her job is to help deliver student-athletes the tools they will need to prosper once they graduate. In Green’s seven years with the University, Rocha stands out as a student-athlete that has exemplified what Notre Dame works to achieve.
“There is nobody like Heidi.” Green said. “She has spent every summer and every break doing some sort of service project, whether it be abroad or in her own community. She always sees things in a way where she wonders how she can be a positive impact on someone’s life. She is just so unselfish.”
Last month during winter break, Rocha ventured over 3000 miles south of campus to Ecuador, where she worked with children living in extreme poverty.
Thanks to a grant she received from Notre Dame, Rocha spent a week in Ecuador shadowing a friend who is serving a two-year mission. Rocha worked long hours at a community center that stresses education, work skills and everyday healthy living.
In just a short time in Ecuador, Rocha left a mark on the children with whom she worked. Despite rough living conditions, the children embraced her. They showed her love, letting her know how appreciated her work was to them.
The children she worked with left their mark on Rocha as well. With a tear in her eye; she reflected back on the experience: “It is hard to explain the impact these kids left on me, but to see the hope these kids had in their eyes, it was very powerful to me.”
During her junior year, Rocha was one of four student-athletes selected by the Monogram Club to receive the Dave Bossy Scholarship Grant. Bossy, a Notre Dame monogram winner in hockey, generously donated funding to support Notre Dame student-athletes who volunteer to work in summer service programs in conjunction with the Center for Social Concerns.
For Rocha, the opportunity she was given by a member of the Monogram Club was very meaningful. She said, “I was very excited to see a Monogram Club member had allotted scholarships specifically so student-athletes could participate in this wonderful program that helps meet local needs across the country. It meant a lot to me.” With the scholarship she received from Bossy, Rocha spent the summer in Utah teaching at a literacy camp. Most of the children at the camp came from homes where English is rarely spoken. Many of the children struggle in school because of their lack of English proficiency.
Rocha taught second-graders reading, writing and vocabulary skills. The camp was more than serious work for the children. Every day Rocha led them in a fun activity like swimming or hiking. The kids loved the activities and in return they were more eager to learn.
Rocha said, “Many of these kids live in apartments where both parents work during the day. Without this camp many of them would have nothing to do and they would be stuck at home without any adult supervision.”
At the end of the two-month program, many of the children Rocha worked with improved their literacy skills to a level that is closer to their peers.
Rocha also continues to serve much closer to home. She is very involved with Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, and that association has taken her to impoverished areas around the region.
Last spring break, Rocha and 11 other Notre Dame students traveled to the Appalachia region of eastern Kentucky. There, they served in local schools while they learned about the economic struggles of the region.
Rocha also participated in the center’s Urban Plunge program in the inner city of Chicago. Through Urban Plunge, Rocha and nine other Notre Dame students volunteered at a community center. There they experienced what daily life is like for people who make service projects in the inner city their life’s work.
Those two trips opened Rocha’s eyes to issues to which few college students are aware. She said, “I felt like I saw something that not many people my age have experienced. I felt like we were given a gift through learning about these places and I now want to take that to share with others.”
The effects of Rocha’s dedication to service impacts more than just those who she is serving. It also influences her teammates’ community involvement.
Tim Connelly, Notre Dame head women’s cross country coach, said, “If you have good kids like Heidi that care about others, then they will care about their teammates and that will carry over into the community.”
Rocha and her teammates often can be found volunteering their time at local schools, at homeless shelters and many other student welfare and development activities.
She often also seeks out other service opportunities on her own, making it tough for Harold Swanagan, coordinator of student development, to keep track of all her activities.
He said, “Heidi just does it all. She is involved in so much that it is hard to keep up with her. She always has herself involved in something and she is always looking for ways to improve and help others.”
Rocha not only excels on the track and in the community, she also excels in the classroom. She has been named to the Dean’s List five times. She is a member of the Academic Honors Program for Student-Athletes and won the Notre Dame Student-Athlete Award for Academic Excellence.
Rocha plans to combine her education and her commitment to service work after she graduates in May with a degree in American studies and minors in education and Catholic social tradition. Upon graduation, Rocha plans to work for the Alliance for Catholic Education.
ACE is a two-year service program through Notre Dame that offers college graduates the opportunity to serve as full-time teachers in under-resourced Catholic schools across the southern United States. At the completion of the program, teachers in the ACE program receive a master’s of education degree from Notre Dame.
For Rocha, service and giving to others has been a major part of her life as she has traveled the globe to give back. All these unique experiences have helped her to grow to become a better person.
Rocha encourages others to follow her path of service. She said, “Take advantage of every opportunity you are presented even if it takes you outside of your comfort zone. Experience everything that life has to offer; it will help you in your personal development. Hopefully the lessons I have learned will impact others and they will have a positive effect on somebody else’s life.”