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Former Irish coach aids Katrina victims

Elizabeth Kelly | Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Wednesday, former Notre Dame basketball coach and current ESPN commentator Digger Phelps returned to his favorite place in the world – Notre Dame.

In conjunction with the University’s annual Ethics Week, Phelps delivered a lecture entitled “Community Service: An Ethical Imperative,” in which he shared his experience starting his own organization to build homes in New Orleans for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

While watching coverage of Hurricane Katrina on the news, he saw footage of the famous 1950s rock-and-roll musician Fats Domino being carried out of a building during the evacuation process, Phelps called. Seeing Fats Domino on television amid the devastated city reminded Phelps of one of Domino’s songs, “Walking to New Orleans.” Listening to the lyrics, Phelps was inspired to help the displaced families in the New Orleans area.

“I went out, bought the CD,” Phelps said, “and when I heard the words, I cried.”

Phelps started his organization, which he named Walking to New Orleans – after the Fats Domino song that gave him inspiration – by donating $90,000 of his own money. He then raised an additional $30,000 after getting support from South Bend’s Rotary Club and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

By December 2007, the organization was able to build its first home in New Orleans for a family that had been displaced by the hurricane, he said.

After completing the first house last December, Phelps has been focusing on gaining additional support for Walking to New Orleans. Now, the organization is close to its goal for its second house-building project, thanks to additional support from Notre Dame faculty and students in the MBA program.

Phelps urged students at Notre Dame to garner even more recognition and support for his organization’s home-building plan. “There is a college in your community, there is a Rotary Club in your community,” Phelps said. “Take the plan with you.”

After promoting Walking to New Orleans, Phelps touched on other topics as well – including his famed career coaching Notre Dame basketball – to emphasize the unique qualities of the Notre Dame community.

“I love talking to students. I love being around this place. I love being a part of this community,” Phelps said.

He hopes that in the future, the Notre Dame community can become an even stronger partner with his organization.

After the lecture, Phelps took student questions on a variety of subjects, even sharing with the audience who his picks were for the NCAA Final Four.

One audience member asked if Phelps planned on using his position as an analyst on ESPN to publicize his organization. Phelps said he doesn’t plan on using his on-air time at ESPN as a vehicle for promoting Walking to New Orleans, but he does plan on using some of his connections within the coaching community to get more donations to the organization.

Two years after Katrina, the Gulf Coast area is still suffering, Phelps said.

“Some people forget, and that’s the sad thing,” he said.

He is optimistic, however, that people will witness the struggle of New Orleans at least once a year. “Every August, it makes the news. Every August, there’s a flashback to Katrina.”