Notre Dame players learn what it means to help the less fortunate

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Maybe a broken leg isn’t such a big deal after all.

It’s all about perspective.

This past week, Notre Dame football players spent their days developing a new way to look at the world around them.

Jarrett Grace has his own struggles. Why burden himself with the plight of others?

The senior linebacker has a monumental task ahead. A broken leg last October, followed by two surgeries, have given him plenty to fret over as a new season quickly approaches and his rehab is amped up. Will he be physically ready for the demands of the game? How difficult will the mental recovery from such a devastating injury be?

Earlier this week, none of that mattered. Grace was more concerned about pushing a Corvilla Inc., client around Potawatomi Zoo in her wheelchair, making sure she had the best vantage point to see the flamingo.

For at least one week for the 60 Irish football players enrolled in a community-based learning course available through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, there was something more important in the world than just themselves,

“You can grow as a person by seeing the world through a different set of eyes,” Grace said. “It’s pretty easy (to put my problems aside). I feel bad about myself. Then I come out here, I don’t even think about it, really. I’m so happy and enthused to be with these guys.

“Being able to step away, it makes you realize that, even though I’m facing these difficulties, it still is a blessing to be here to have all the resources to help me, because I know I’m going to recover.’’

Kelly’s plan

When Brian Kelly took over as head coach five years ago, he identified community service as a critical part of the Notre Dame experience. Through the Center for Social Concerns, the university has partnered with Healthwin Hospital, Logan Center, Corvilla, Inc., the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center, the Center for the Homeless and Good Shepherd Montessori School as agencies in which players could be involved.

For the one-credit class, a week before summer school starts, the players have classroom work for two hours in the morning, then become involved with their assigned agency in the afternoon.

“At Notre Dame, one of our distinctions is service and it hits right where we are. Service is important to Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “(Players) are all over the community. All of our players are involved in it — all of our scholarship players and even some of our walk-ons have paid to be in that class.

“This has been a great class for our kids to be other-centered and be involved in the community.”

Grace is one of 10 Notre Dame student-athletes — nine football players and basketball player Eric Katenda — assigned to Corvilla, Inc., which offers homes and services for the developmentally disabled. The excursion to the zoo was just one of the week’s activities.

“When you’re with our folks, they cause you to open your heart,” said Diana Dolde, program director at Corvilla, Inc. “You just want to be around them.

“(Tuesday) the guys were playing basketball, doing puzzles, they baked cookies with them. You just want to do … and make them happy. They have a full week with them.

“Usually, we have volunteers for just one day. We have these same 10 guys for five days. They know each other by name. They high-five each other. They’re bonding with them. They get to know what they like to do, what they don’t like to do. It’s been great.”

God’s children

“One thing that’s come into focus is how lucky we are to be at Notre Dame,” said Grace, who has worked at the Juvenile Justice Center and Logan Center in past years. “We have a responsibility since we have these blessings. We are able to learn so much about our community. It’s our responsibility to go out and make these people feel valued, because they are.

“When it comes down to it, everyone we’re working with is a person, just like we are – whether their circumstances have put them in the Juvenile Justice (Center) or whether, in their life, they face different disabilities.

“It’s our duty as human beings to care for one another.

“In the classroom, there are tons of discussion. Right now, we’re talking about community leadership. Even on our team, there are people from different places in the country, so they have different points of view.

“When you come out and implement what you just talked about, it’s a little bit tougher to keep that same mindset; to be open, and take advantage of everything that’s in front of us.”

Andrew Trumbetti, an early-enrollee freshman from Demarest, N.J., is getting his first taste of the community-based learning. However, this is hardly the first time the defensive lineman has been involved with the developmentally disabled.

“I didn’t really know this is exactly what we did,” Trumbetti said as he rolled Jarrod from the tiger exhibit to the ostrich. “I thought we just went out in the community … I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I’m really happy that I got paired-up (with Corvilla) because I had past experience doing this. Back at home, I helped this type of (group). It’s really rewarding to come out here and help people. It makes you feel good.

“Sometimes you take what you have for granted. People live like this every day. It’s sad, but they’re all God’s children. Everyone’s the same. Everyone’s a person. You have to help those who need the help. Being at Notre Dame, you have to branch out and help as many people as you can.

“Someone new to this might be a little standoff-ish. Having done it before, I know how to act and how to treat them. They’re still people – just give them a little more care and attention. That’s it.

“I have a lot of patience – that works to my advantage.”

Partners help

“The strength of the Center for Social Concerns on Notre Dame’s campus is these community partnerships,” said Mike Hebbeler, ND’s program director, student leadership and senior transitions, who teaches the class with Bill Purcell. “For our students to learn about issues of poverty, issues of injustice; also, to form relationships with people on the margin.

“Our greatest teachers, in some ways, are our community partners – like the clients at Corvilla, teaching these guys about human dignity; vulnerability. Our relationship with the city of South Bend is very strong.”

Hebbeler and Purcell do their best to monitor each student-athlete’s progress to enhance the experience.

“We have them journaling every day,” said Purcell, associate director for Catholic tradition. “They’re talking about the people they’re interacting with. (That’s) a way to see how they’re doing. They’ll share stuff personally in those journals that becomes pretty meaningful.

“We’re trying to act within the community. (The players) are reflecting on what they’re going to do beyond this class. (We’re) very happy with watching a number of the students continue on with those relationships in the coming year. The agencies talk about how the players have become mentors.”

Success stories

They’ve had some success stories in recent years. Manti Te’o and Robby Toma maintained their relationships with agencies well beyond what was required by the class. Last year, tight end Troy Niklas – who left a year of college eligibility on the table to go to the NFL – became heavily involved with the Center for the Homeless.

“The great thing about having done this for five years is seeing our older students, the maturity and the growth,” Hebbeler said. “When they become leaders for the younger students and they take the initiative at the community partner sites (you can see the ‘light bulb’ turn on).

“Speaking of light bulbs, when Troy first arrived, we could tell he wasn’t that comfortable with his community site. As he grew, after a couple years, he really did become a leader.

“We hear these guys talk about the relationships that make the college experience so meaningful. Sometimes that will keep someone from departing early.”

Not so with Niklas. But the experience was pivotal in his development.

Grace has used his own experiences encountered from his injury to enhance his compassion for LilliaTn, Jarrod, and the others at Corvilla, Inc.

“I was in a wheelchair. I was in a scooter,” Grace said. “I’m pretty sympathetic (to their plight). Even when I was on campus, I’d be like, ‘This handicap button doesn’t work.’ It really opened my eyes: ‘Wow, this is hard.’ Put on top of that, if someone has a developmental disability, I could understand the challenges they could face.

“There’s so much we take for granted. We can complain about having a bum ankle or something like that. In reality, we’re really blessed.”

That realization is the goal that Kelly hoped for five years ago.

Amazing how perspective can change.

Tribune staff writer Eric Hansen contributed to this story


Notre Dame freshman Andrew Trumbetti points out an animal to Corvilla client Jarrod at Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend on Wednesday. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)
Notre Dame football player Nick Martin shares a smile as he tours Potawatomi Zoo with Corvilla client Shelley on Wednesday. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)