Children visited with Santa Claus at the Athletics department's Adopt-A-Family celebration on December 14.

Spreading Christmas Joy

Dec. 19, 2014 Photo Gallery

By Renee Peggs

Tidings of comfort and joy – for local South Bend families, those words became flesh in the form of the Athletics department’s Adopt-A-Family celebration, held at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Dec. 14.

Several hundred people gathered in O’Brien’s and the upper level of the arena last Sunday as Christmas came to Notre Dame.

The afternoon began with a meet-n-greet as Athletics department personnel and student-athletes warmly welcomed each family to the Compton. Fighting Irish student-athletes had arrived in advance to arrange the gifts for their respective families, each of which had its own area delineated by festive signs.

Each family was paired with members of a varsity athletics team or a division of the Athletics department, which had each collected or individually donated the money to buy gifts for their partner family. Colorful wrapping paper and elated children flew through the chilly arena air as wishes came true.

“Seeing the kids open their gifts was so touching,” says former women’s basketball player and 2014 graduate Natalie Achonwa, who now serves as the team’s director of basketball operations. “To give them a little bit of spark, and a little bit of happiness at a time that’s all about family and giving, this is just who we are and what we do.

“[Vice president and director of athletics] Jack Swarbrick always stresses community as one of the most important of the Five Pillars. This year all 13 members of the women’s basketball team attended to meet and hang out with our family. The girls are very passionate about it and they were each personally invested on behalf of the family. It was great for our team to be involved in giving back to the community.”

Back in early October, varsity sports camps coordinator Matt Weldy and assistant athletics director Maureen McNamara met with Jill VanDriessche, principal of Perley Primary Arts Academy, a public elementary school located just across the street from the southwest corner of the University campus to discuss what the 2014 Adopt-A-Family might look like.

“It’s not about coming and opening presents as much as it is about coming and experiencing something that they wouldn’t normally do as a family,” says VanDriessche. “Family events are [rare] in their lives because the parents are working multiple jobs round the clock to make ends meet. There’s a meal here for them so they don’t have to worry about how to feed their children — and that’s huge.”

A leadership team from Perley solicited recommendations from the school’s teachers about families with which to share the Adopt-a-Family program.

VanDriessche explains that, given the high-urban composition of the school’s neighborhoods, many of the families struggle daily.

“The joyfulness of sharing food together is probably as big a highlight as anything else today. We were looking particularly for families that go unnoticed, which is hard because you have to consider their pride – they’re working families, but are unfamiliar with how to get support for their needs. We were very intentional in our consideration of families who would be open to having this kind of experience and who were not receiving support or aid from other entities.

“This is my second year as principal,” says VanDriessche, “so we had a better idea of what sorts of things we wanted our families to experience. That allowed us to be much more intentional with the selection process and what the impact of this program could be for those we selected.”

On the University side, Weldy reached out to each of the varsity coaches as well as members of the athletics department staff.

“There was so much interest and initiative right from the beginning,” he shares with pride. “The coaches responded immediately; for many teams the senior captain took the reins and made sure it actually happened. They collect the money, shop for the gifts, wrap everything – which is certainly not my forte! – and then they showed up today on time and ready to go. They’ve been incredible in making the families feel comfortable, interacting with them, and being good hosts – our student-athletes and our coaches have done an incredible job.”

Now in its fourth year as an initiative of the Athletics department, the Adopt-a-Family program has clearly come into full flourishing.

McNamara adds, “Perley is such a great partner. Jill is amazing and everything was so well organized by the school. Investing our time, talents and treasure in our neighbors and the surrounding community is so important to us. All of our teams, many coaches and department staff members participated. It was truly an inspirational day for all of us.”

In between opening gifts and taking pictures, families and their new athletics friends were able to share a wonderful meal in O’Brien’s, the exclusive club for Fighting Irish hockey. Santa was on hand for photo opportunities, and you could almost see sugarplums dancing in midair amidst all the merriment.

“Even when we were shopping, which was so much fun – our family has four kids from ages four to 18 – it really touched our hearts and gave us perspective on how blessed we all are,” says Karin Simonian, a member of the women’s soccer team. “To be able to give back like this and really make Christmas special – every Notre Dame team has the ability to do this. Even if it’s just one family or one child or one mother, we can make a difference and we need to take that seriously, and not just at Christmas. This experience has really touched me,” she says with sincerity.

According to Weldy, the planning team tried to match families with teams according to gender, but it wasn’t quite possible across the board.

“For example, the men’s lacrosse team had a family that just has one daughter. So those 20-year old guys went shopping for a nine-year-old girl, which, I’d assume, is probably not their normal shopping trip,” he says with a laugh.

“Our family has six kids and two parents,” shared Emily Frydrych, who served as the Adopt-A-Family point person for the women’s cross country team. “A teammate and I spent one afternoon shopping for the daughters and a different afternoon for the sons, and then an extra run out to Michael’s to get art supplies for one of the kids.

“The parents asked for pots and pans and utensils. As we bought those things we realized how much that alone cost and then thought about how difficult it must be, even with both parents working, for them to provide food and clothing for their six children. We were able to help them out in this small way by bringing them some joy and relieving some of their anxiety over not being able to do Christmas presents for their kids. Almost 30 girls from our team contributed, our whole team was involved and excited and it’s so great that we can play a role in helping them.”

VanDriessche points out that even with the close physical proximity of Perley to Notre Dame, so many of the local families have never been on campus and certainly never interacted with student-athletes.

“There’s sometimes a belief among our families that the University is this all-powerful, almighty, untouchable force without a human face and with doors completely closed off to them. Well, now the doors have been opened! This is a neighborly event and has significant potential to change some of those negative beliefs and feelings. We have the ability now to move forward as neighbors with mutual social understanding and blended culture, and that gives us hope for a very bright future, both for our families and as two educational entities.”

Her hope is that “through their interactions today, [the student-athletes] might want to become part of our family at Perley as we work to build a long-term sustainable relationship with the University and many of its constituents. Exposing our kids to what possibilities lie ahead, what it’s like to go to college, what opportunities that can open up for them… they need to have Notre Dame kids in their lives showing them these things. It’s powerful, precisely because it’s so foreign to our kids.”

The afternoon was topped off by an hour-long skating session on “the big ice” for all the families and their Notre Dame partners. Many had never skated before, so those individuals with some skating experience went around lacing dozens of pairs of skates for children and adults alike.

The scene was magical. The delight and fun (maybe mixed with little bits of frustration and appreciation for the skill of moving on two narrow blades) was tangible and contagious. The spirit of Notre Dame and the spirit of Christmas became one.

As a university in sync with the Christian liturgical cycle, marked by Catholic social teaching and concern, Notre Dame incarnates the real presence of a Savior who enters our lives, brightens our darkness and fans the smoldering wick of our hope into a flame that draws and warms others even as it points to its ultimate Source.

O come, let us adore Him.