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CSC adds Bangladesh summer service program

Katie Peralta | Thursday, November 12, 2009

The orginal version of this article misidentified Mark Weber as the producer of the film “Strong Bodies Fight: Rough Cut.” Weber is the co-producer. The Observer regrets this error.


Notre Dame’s relationship with the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh has gained new momentum in the past year — from last week’s premiere of the film “Strong Bodies Fight: Rough Cut” to its new International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) in the developing country. 

The new ISSLP, offered through the Center of Social Concerns (CSC), sent four students to Bangladesh for the first time just this past summer, despite the fact that it shares a long history with the Holy Cross Missions in the country, Rachel Tomas Morgan, director of International Service Learning and Justice Education at the CSC said.

“For as long as Bengal Bouts has been supporting the Holy Cross missions of Bangladesh, it is amazing to consider that not one boxer had ever gone over,” she said.

Mark Weber, a 2009 graduate, former boxing club president and captain and co-producer of the film, approached Morgan in the summer of 2008 to discuss the creation of a possible link between the CSC’s ISSLP and the Bengal Bouts, Morgan said.

“Mark asked us to be a part of ‘taking Bengal Bouts to the next phase’ and to provide the programmatic infrastructure that could allow it to succeed,” she said. “He felt the ISSLP was a good fit — our Center’s commitment to the work of Holy Cross and the academic service learning.”

With an initial “pilot” trip to Bangladesh in May with four fellow boxers, Morgan said, Weber committed to the groundwork if the CSC would add Bangladesh to the listing of country placements for the program.

“It was a mission, Mark reminded me, for which Bengal Bouts boxers had fought for over 78 years but about a land that they had never stepped foot on or about a people they had never met,” she said. “I was very much inspired by his vision and energized by his commitment.”

In their two-week trip to Bangladesh, along with researching and filming footage for the documentary, Weber and his the other boxers pledged to “pursue the topic of summer service-learning interns with the Holy Cross community in Bangladesh, assess their interest and more importantly, their capacity for receiving eight week long interns to work with their schools, parishes and development efforts in Bangladesh,” Morgan said.

The group’s reports came back optimistic, and plans were soon underway to send four students the next summer.

The local Bengali priests were eager to receive the first wave of student volunteers to not only to assist their country but also learn about it as well.

“There is no limit of learning and I think students should cross the borders of every sort,” Bengali Holy Cross priest Fr. Leonard Rozario said. “That is why I always hoped that [Notre Dame] students would come to Bangladesh and learn about a different language and people, how to live in the village with other culture and cultural values — even food and gestures that would give then another worldview.”

The new ISSLP group, which included boxers Robert Powers, John Maier, Sean Pennino and James Woods, spent eight weeks paired up to work in two cities, Jalchatra and Pirgacha, both parish communities that Holy Cross has located among the Monde tribal communities, located five hours outside the capital city of Dhaka, Morgan said.

The students spent their summers teaching English, assisting Holy Cross Bengali priests in parish outreach efforts and learning about the work of the Holy Cross Missions.

“I think they made their presence felt,” Rozario said. “They were social, young, energetic and ready to help in the best way they could. The children cannot forget these people.”

Maier, a senior who spent his summer in Jalchatra, said he particularly enjoyed the interaction with the children themselves.

“My favorite part was just going over to the [Holy Cross Bengali] seminary and playing football and cricket with the boys,” Maier said. “We also were able to teach basketball and boxing to some of the guys.”

Pennino, a junior, was placed in Pirgacha and said he was wary of the trip initially.

“I had both hesitations and doubts about being the first group to go to Bangladesh,” he said. “However, the uncertainties made the trip adventurous and being the first group gave us the freedom to set the tone for future ISSLP participants.”

Maier said the program helped him connect the Bengal Bouts with the Missions for which they fought.

“Going over there helped me understand that the program actually means more than just beating people up,” he said.

Maier also said he developed an understanding of the plight of the impoverished Bengali people whom he encountered.

“The biggest thing I got out of it was a perspective and a view on these people’s vulnerability,” he said. “All of their land was always looked at as not theirs. They cannot take back their land if it’s taken from them and hey don’t have the money to get higher education.”

Maier said the Missions hope to help the country become essentially self-sustainable.

“We are trying to help a people that don’t have the access to any kind of help,” he said. “At some point hopefully they wont need us. Hopefully eventually they will be able to help themselves.”

The CSC hopes to continue and build the program in the coming years.

“We were excited to begin a partnership that we hope will continue into the future,” Morgan said.