Mar 8, 2013, 3:32 PM EDT
On Tuesday night, the Student Welfare & Development office welcomed 25 children from the South Bend Martin Luther King Center to the Commons in the Joyce Center as part of the Irish Experience programs.
Along with close to 20 student-athletes from the football, volleyball, rowing, baseball, softball, golf and track & field teams, the group enjoyed some pizza, before heading out to Purcell Pavilion to watch the Irish men’s basketball team play St. John’s in the final home game of the season.
Led by sports camps coordinator Matt Weldy, and inspired by the five pillars of the athletic department – excellence, education, faith, tradition and community – the Irish Experience programs focus on sharing Notre Dame’s values and providing support to youth in the South Bend community.
From camps to leagues to events such as Tuesday’s, the Irish Experience means a lot not only to the children and student-athletes, but also to Stephanie Coleman, a programmer with the South Bend Parks & Recreation and chaperone during the visit.
“The kids love it. The relationship is great. Matt does a realy good job,” Coleman said. “We’re really excited about the whole relationship. It benefits our kids very well. We just love it. Parents love it. It’s great.”
Getting to ask questions and form friendships with the Irish student-athletes is a special opportunity for the children. As Coleman explained, many of them play the same sports at the MLK Center and in community youth leagues, so in a sense, it is as if they’re learning from the pros.
The group took a trip to Purcell in February for the DePaul game, and last week, the Irish paid a visit to the Center on South Bend’s westside.
Coleman mentioned that the ongoing connection between the student-athletes and children may even be leading to a change of heart from an enthusiast of one of our…”friends” from the north.
“My husband is a Michigan fan, and because of these types of things – especially the last game – it’s really making him see that Notre Dame is really interacting with the community,” she said.
To start the evening, sophomore rower Stella Willoughby welcomed the children to the Commons. The Olympia, Wash. native commended their continued good behavior and good grades in the classroom, a couple of the reasons why they had the opportunity to return for another game.
“Are we gonna be in the front row?,” one girl chimed in.
While they didn’t quite have courtside seats, they did have a chance to enjoy some pizza, watch an Irish win on Senior Night, and more importantly, spend some quality time with an encouraging group of young men and women.
Among those student-athletes was freshman long snapper Scott Daly, who during his brief time at the university, has been very involved with service and eager to give back to the community.
“It’s such a huge part of what we do here at Notre Dame. It’s great talking to these kids, taking a little time out of our day to make their day a little better. That helps us feel good too,” he said.
“I think we’re all put in this world to make an impact on people’s lives. I think just making their day a little better, making them smile once in a while, bringing them here to a college basketball game, especially at Notre Dame. Not many kids can experience that, and I think it’s a great thing.”
Likewise, fellow class of 2016 member Crystal Thomas, a forward on the women’s soccer team, was excited to share some time with their visitors.
“These kids are awesome. I’ve only gotten to hang out with them a couple times now, but I hope I can continue to do so. It give me the opportunity to use Notre Dame and sports to impact kids that might otherwise not hear from people in their communities that might be leadership figures, that are telling them, ‘You’re awesome. You can do this,'” she said. “Listening to them talk and watching them interact is so exciting and they just have so much potential. I was in their shoes ten years ago, and they can do this. It’s been a real blessing to interact with them.”
Spending time with children and teaching them about sports and the importance of character, work ethic and attitude is a simple concept, really.
But it’s also easy to think back to my own childhood, and the camps or clinics I attended as an aspiring athlete, and how much it meant to have the the undivided attention of high school or college athletes who I looked to as role models.
It’s an invaluable opportunity for everyone involved, and a bond that will continue to grow throughout the year and over the summer.
Stay tuned. Great things are ahead for the Irish Experience, the Student Welfare & Development office, and the student-athletes at the University of Notre Dame.
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