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Robinson Center celebrates anniversary

JOSEPH MCMAHON | Friday, February 26, 2010

When the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC) first opened nine years ago in the Northeast Neighborhood of South Bend, the Center’s director Jay Caponigro was not really sure how Notre Dame’s attempt at reaching out to the community would be received.

“We weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do when we opened the doors,” he said. “We had some ideas from the neighborhood … but we weren’t sure what the best way to do that was.”

Since that time, Caponigro, who has been the director of the RCLC, a division of the University’s Office of Public Affairs and Communication, since it first opened, has helped build long lasting relationships with community leaders while improving Notre Dame’s standing in South Bend.

“I’ve been here nine years since we opened the Robinson Center, and for me it has been a great opportunity to represent the University and work with a great team that really cares a lot about what was going on in the neighborhood,” he said. “A primary goal of ours has been to build relationships between Notre Dame and the community.”

While the Robinson Center will celebrate its ninth anniversary at a ceremony this Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Caponigro will be promoted to director of community engagement, effective March 1.

“The University built a lot of trust over the past nine years from a lot of different initiatives and because of that it has created more opportunities for us to collaborate with more partners in the community,” he said. “That’s what the new position takes off into.”

According to Caponigro, the University’s desire to increase collaboration between Notre Dame and the community led to the creation of his new position.

“That’s what this new job will be about — to help refine our engagement so that we really do have an impact where needed,” he said.

One strong indicator of the need to expand service entities like the Robinson Center is the community’s changed attitude toward the University. Caponigro said when he was first appointed RCLC director, he often heard the criticism that Notre Dame wasn’t involved in the community.

“Now, I hear the criticism that more neighborhoods want Robinson Centers,” he said.
The RCLC now serves over 5,000 South Bend residents each academic year through “innovative programs” such as tutoring, violence-prevention, youth entrepreneurship and performing arts projects for adults and children, Caponigro said.

“What we’ve done over the past nine years is build those relationships and couple them with programs that really focus on helping young people realize their potential with math, with science, with the performing arts and helping senior citizens experience things they never have before like playing the [Nintendo] Wii and building their own Web sites,” he said.

“That’s been the best part of this job — that we’ve been able to help people realize their potential by offering programs that really pique their interest.”

Caponigro said the RCLC has been aided by the over 250 Notre Dame students who volunteer there.

“It helps us do so much more,” he said “We can reach out to the community with those great resources.”

Although he is scheduled to be promoted soon, Caponigro said the Robinson Center had not yet named his successor, but they continue to “search for the best candidate.”

In the future, Caponigro said he would continue to work to improve Notre Dame’s presence in South Bend and build relationships with both community leaders and ordinary citizens.

“I hope those partnerships continue because this place runs on them,” he said.