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Hannah and Friends opens 30-acre farm

Sam Werner | Tuesday, September 29, 2009

With a count of “1, 2, 3” followed by a snip of some scissors, Maura and Hannah Weis officially opened the next chapter of the Hannah and Friends organization.

The group officially opened its first residential home Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the foundation’s 30-acre farm in South Bend.

“It’s great,” Maura Weis, the wife of Irish football coach Charlie Weis, said. “It’s emotional, but happy.”

Maura and Charlie Weis started Hannah and Friends in 2003. Charlie said Monday that the couple began thinking about charity work after he suffered serious complications from an attempted gastric bypass surgery.

“Maura looked at me and said, ‘You know, you could have died and we never would have done any good for anyone other than ourselves,” Charlie said.

Weis said he and Maura began thinking about their daughter, Hannah, who suffers from global development delays. He said the most common concern about children with “different abilities” is who will take care of them if the parents are unable. Eventually, the Weis’ settled on founding Hannah and Friends, and, in typical Charlie Weis fashion, they dreamed big from the beginning.

“This room was drawn up on a napkin,” Weis said as he motioned to the spacious recreation room at the new facility. “And it looks almost identical to that chicken scratch.”

The Eck Rec Room, named after Notre Dame alumnus Frank Eck, was the first building opened on the farm. Since then, the compound has added a fully functioning barn with five horses, the Peter Schivarelli and Chicago Home, which opened Monday, and the Jon Bon Jovi Home, which Maura expected to open around Christmas.

Each home can house four individuals with what Maura calls “different abilities,” women in the Schivarelli Home, and men in the soon-to-be-completed Bon Jovi Home. The homes are being run by Mosaic, another non-profit group with homes around the country.

The individuals must apply to Hannah and Friends for housing and the Board of Directors reviews applications and selects residents. Maura said two residents – “huge Notre Dame fans” – have already been selected to move into the Bon Jovi home when it opens.

At the ceremony, Schivarelli, manager of the musical band Chicago, said he was proud of how far the organization had come. The group donates 50 cents from every ticket sold to Hannah and Friends.

“We have done a lot of charitable things over the years before we got involved with Hannah and Friends,” he said. “But we never actually saw the fruits of the labor. It makes it all worthwhile.”

Charlie Weis, for his part, said Schivarelli’s generosity was only natural.

“People don’t realize this, but Peter Schivarelli has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve ever met,” Weis said.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of Monday’s ceremony was simply that it was taking place already. Sharon Bui Green, Hannah and Friends’ executive director said the farm originally hoped to welcome its first occupants in 2015.

“I’ve been working for them for four years and we’ve literally just been collecting our pennies to have this beautiful place,” Bui Green said.

She added that the extremely early opening was made possible by the generosity of the individuals in the Notre Dame and Michiana community. Couches and appliances were donated at cost by local businesses to complete the homes.

Bui Green said the foundation bought the property in 2006 and broke ground in 2007.

While Hannah and Friends doesn’t plan on expanding quite that much, Bui Green said the residents, as well as Hannah herself, have taught her invaluable lessons.

“Even though [Hannah] has a limited vocabulary, we call her our professor of life,” Bui Green said. “She really teaches us to be better people. We learn values like compassion and love because of Hannah.”

Bui Green said one of the primary aspects of Misericordia – a Home in Chicago, where Sister Rosemary Connelly maintains a home for more than 550 people with different abilities – that Hannah and Friends hopes to emulate is the placement of residents into job environments. For example, residents who are interested in horses are encouraged to work and spend time in the barn.

“We have them brushing the horses, helping with the feeding, giving them hay and everything,” Bui Green said.

While Bui Green and Maura do most of the legwork for the organization, the man most people associate with Hannah and Friends is Charlie Weis. Weis was appointed to President Bush’s Committee For People With Intellectual Disabilities in 2008 and has continued to work with Hannah and Friends since then. Maura said even though most people think of Charlie as a figurehead, he plays a vital role in the foundation.

“Charlie doesn’t mess around,” Maura said. “He acts like he doesn’t do anything and we’re doing this. But he’s such a big part it’s not even funny.”

It may be hard to imagine the screaming, hard-nosed Charlie Weis football fans see on Saturdays as a caring father, but Bui Green said the two are one and the same.

“I always see a guy who’s a hard worker that loves his family,” she said. “Sometimes when we have dance parties, he’ll just sit incognito and watch them dancing. He’s not the head football coach at Notre Dame. He gets all giddy because he just sees kids so happy.”

Bui Green also said Weis’ inherent generosity is present simply in the organization’s name.

“He could have called it ‘The Charlie Weis Foundation,'” she said. “But it’s Hannah and Friends. You can see just from the name the cause and why we do the things we do.”

The next step, Bui Green said, was to get the Notre Dame student community more involved. Some groups have done events with Hannah and Friends, and Alumni Hall donated the farm’s playground.

“It’s great because [the students are] not only helping other people,” Bui Green said. “But they help themselves become better people. That’s really what we want the message to be.”

The next buildings planned are a respite home for parents of children with different abilities, as well as an indoor community swimming pool. Maura said the group may eventually add more homes, but faces opposition from some special needs advocacy groups. She said these groups don’t want too many special needs people living in one place, to avoid an institutional feel.

“My biggest thing is why can’t our people have choices,” Maura said. “For now, though, we’re going to be fine with just doing the respite home, these homes, and the community pool.”

While it may seem like an ambitious goal, Bui Green said the Hannah and Friends farm is only a natural fit for Maura, Charlie and Notre Dame.

“This is the vision of Father Sorin,” Bui Green said. “For Notre Dame to be the most powerful means of good in the country.”