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Lending a helping hand in South Bend and around the world

Teresa Fralish | Friday, September 26, 2003

Service at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s is almost a clique – over 80 percent of students are involved in some type of volunteer service during their four years and 10 percent of each senior class chooses to do post-graduate service.

Service has always been a major component of student life at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s. Volunteering at such organizations as the Center for the Homeless, the Logan Center and Christmas in April remains a major tradition for Notre Dame students.

In an environment commonly referred to as “the bubble,” volunteer work offers students a chance to get off campus and make a difference in the South Bend community.

“[Service] can really bring to life things that they’re learning in the classroom,” said Annie Cahill, director of community partnerships at the Center for Social Concerns.

For students who might have a negative view of the South Bend area, service work offers them the chance to view the city from a brighter side and make a positive contribution to the community.

Whether students are looking to be involved in a small way or want to make a major commitment, a wide range of service activities abound in the South Bend community.

“The community really values students’ enthusiasm and energy,” said Cahill.

Both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s have separate departments for their community service programs and clubs. The Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame and the SURV Center at Saint Mary’s serve as a sort of clearinghouse for students looking to be involved with service work.

Both departments can provide students with information about service opportunities on campus, in the South Bend community, throughout the country and abroad. They also both sponsor vehicle programs, where volunteers can borrow a car to do service work in the South Bend community if they do not have a car on campus.

Because Notre Dame has helped sponsor some the major service organizations in South Bend, Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students have always had a close relationship with the service programs described here.

Center for the Homeless

Founded by members of the South Bend and Notre Dame communities over 10 years ago, this organization has been very successful in dealing with the issue of homelessness in the South Bend community. Rather than focusing only on a person’s immediate needs, such as food and shelter, the Center for the Homeless aims to integrate the person back into society through education and job-training programs. In fact, community planners from across the country have traveled to South Bend to study the Center’s programs. The Center also runs tutoring programs for children staying with their parents.

Since its founding, student volunteers from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students have been an integral part of the Center by tutoring younger students, participating in adult programs along with one-time service projects such as serving a dinner for the Center’s residents. The Center for the Homeless has also recently built an expansion to its current building, a sign that it has been a success in the South Bend area.

Logan Center

Located just off Notre Dame’s campus, this organization provides services to children and adults in the South Bend community with special needs and mental and physical disabilities, such as a preschool for young children and adult rehabilitation programs.

Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students have long been a part of the Logan Center, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, through volunteer activities such as assisting with swimming nights for Logan clients.

The Logan Center also helps sponsor three service clubs at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s that work with special needs individuals. The Logan Rec Club plans events with adult clients, such as bowling nights and other social outings, while the Best Buddies Club matches students with Logan clients to provide a mentoring and learning relationship for both individuals.

Students who have a sibling with special needs can be paired with a young child in the community who also has a sibling with a disability as part of the Super Sibs Club.

The Logan Center also helps organize a week-long Disabilities Awareness Week each spring that aims to educate Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s about special needs through a variety of programs and speakers.


The CSC sponsors a wide range of classes and programs called “service learning seminars,” where students travel to various sites through the United States to learn about service and social justice issues. Most of the programs offer students academic credit and include a class component, such as background classes before the service learning experience and a paper or other project.

“We do try to include Catholic Social Tradition in all our seminars,” said Carl Loesch, the CSC’s director of service learning. “Roughly 700 students a year participate in the seminars,” he said.

For over 20 years, students have traveled over fall or spring break to various sites in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and other mountain states as part of the Appalachia Seminar, the CSC’s flagship service learning seminar. The CSC assigns small groups of participants to about 20 different sites in the Appalachia region, and the students help the local community work on various projects, often involving construction and repair work.

In addition to Appalachia, volunteers can participate in such seminars as the Washington D.C. Seminar, which focuses on social justice issues in the nation’s capital and the Children and Poverty Seminar, dealing with children’s issues in New York, and the Migrant Experiences Seminar in Florida.

For students who aren’t able to give up their entire fall or spring break, the CSC also sponsors the Urban Plunge, which takes place each year over winter break. The program generally lasts one weekend, with each participant traveling to the site that is closest to where he or she lives. In the city, students become involved with a variety of activities that center on social justice issues, such as meeting with community leaders and visiting service agencies. As opposed to the week-long seminars, the Urban Plunge focuses on structural and societal issues rather than hands-on service work.

“[They] broaden the classroom,” said Loesch. “[They] help students wrestle with some of the big issues.”

Post-graduate service

Seniors who cannot find a job and are not interested in graduate school can always consider post-graduate service work in the United States or abroad.

“The type of students [who choose post-graduate service] are open to new cultures, new peoples and have a commitment to work with others to create a more just and humane world,” said Andrea Smith-Shappell, director of senior transition programs at the CSC.

Generally, most opportunities last for one to two years and allow students to defer the interest on their loans for the duration of the program.

Always popular with seniors are volunteer teaching programs such as Teach for America and the Alliance for Catholic Education. Former Notre Dame executive vice president Father Tim Scully founded ACE. Both programs assign volunteers to teach in an inner city or under-funded school for two years. Teachers in the ACE program live with other volunteers at their site and graduate from the program with a masters degree in education.

Summer Service Projects

For students who want to spend an entire summer involved in service work, opportunities are available across the nation and overseas. The program offers a wide range of service experiences at locations throughout the United States, ranging from work with children and special needs individuals to placements with the elderly and migrant communities. Students are often sponsored by alumni, who provide the volunteer with housing and board. In addition, participants can receive a tuition credit to help offset the costs of not working in a summer job.

If students are interested in more of a challenge, they can also consider the possibility of spending a summer involved in service work overseas, in countries such as Mexico, Uganda,

Christmas in April

Heading out to South Bend’s Northeast Neighborhood with nails, hammers, paint and brushes has become a tradition for many Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students involved in the Christmas in April program, renamed last year as Rebuilding Together Now. Every spring for one day, several hundred students and community volunteers descend on houses in the neighborhood to help repair roofs, paint houses, rake yards and assist with general repair work.

Dismas House

This South Bend home might look like any other off-campus student house, but is uniquely different from the student homes nearby. Dismas House serves as a home for released prisoners and Notre Dame students to live together and learn from each other. While all of the residents usually have a full day including jobs, meetings and classes, as part of the house guidelines, everyone comes together each day for the evening meal. The students who live at Dismas House can spend either a year or semester in the home. The home also frequently welcomes groups from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, such as Circle K or residence halls, to share dinner with the residents.

Robinson Community Learning Center

Located in the Northeast Neighborhood, the Robinson Center serves as a gathering place and resource center for children and adults in the area. The organization was started several years ago as part of an effort to provide resources to the lower income families in that area, through services such as computer classes for adults and after-school tutoring for children. “There was really a need for computers,” said Cahill.

The Robinson Center also has a tutoring program called Take Ten, which sends student volunteers to school throughout the South Bend community.

“We’re given the opportunity to take our beliefs and opinions to another level and go out and experience the world,” said Alice Pennington, a sophomore at Notre Dame who volunteers in the Take Ten program.

For students involved in service during their four years at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, it is an experience that shapes their perspective on classes, society, friendships and student life overall.

“We’re reinforcing what we learn in class … in a real world situation,” said Pennington.

Contact Teresa Fralish at tfralish@nd.edu