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Notre Dame assists as New Orleans tries to rebuild

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, November 9, 2005

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Notre Dame alum Paul Christmann, Class of 1989, was plagued by the concerns of any New Orleans resident – specifically his inability to contact any friends from the devastated city. While Christmann and his family had found housing with relatives in Florida, the hasty evacuation of New Orleans left most residents without any way to locate their neighbors and coworkers.

But Christmann, a software developer and president of the Notre Dame club of New Orleans, was able to unite his profession and his passion to come up with a solution – he developed an online alumni bulletin board at www.ndkatrina.com.

“The really popular Web sites were listing hundreds or thousands of entries,” Christmann said. “I thought I could do something similar but for a more targeted group – if I was looking for my ND alumni friends, maybe an ND Web site would be the right place to go.”

The site has succeeded in helping people locate one another, giving a place to offer and request help and supplying a way to find alumni in any city.

“Alumni around the country asked me where they could start helping – they were willing to drop whatever they had to show up in our city and start the rebuilding process,” Christmann said. “I think this is tied directly to the values that the school espouses, and its Catholic background.”

Christmann, who also created a bulletin board for Hurricane Rita, was only one of many Notre Dame alumni who thought of their alma mater in a time of need.

“A lot of alumni, as they fled New Orleans, took two things with them: their class ring and their football tickets for this season,” said Sean O’Brien, director of the alumni community service program. “They turned to Notre Dame as their home and came back to the security of the University.”

In the wake of Katrina, many alumni strove to serve others and tied this desire to serve back to their time at Notre Dame, O’Brien said.

At least 80 percent of Notre Dame alumni clubs participate in service activities, which should come as no surprise on a campus that encourages service among its students, he said.

The Alumni Association raised $46,000 for Katrina relief efforts as of Nov. 1, while many alumni around the country have made separate donations through their workplaces or other charities.

In addition, many alumni have come up with ways to directly serve the people of the Gulf Coast.

Chris Bellairs, associate executive director of the Notre Dame alumni association, said it is important to remember that Notre Dame’s alumni are united by their experience at Notre Dame.

“The Alumni Association is not just the 30 people in the [Eck Center], it’s literally the thousands of alumni who have graduated from Notre Dame,” he said.

While the Notre Dame Club of Chicago typically focuses its fundraising efforts on their Scholarship Foundation and Summer Service Projects, members chose to hold a collection during their Michigan State football game watch.

“When Hurricane Katrine hit and we saw the absolute devastation that it brought, we felt we had to make an exception,” said Kristin Leonardo, club manager and a 2000 Notre Dame graduate.

The University is successful at fostering service work among its students and this social consciousness is equally strong among its alumni, Leonardo said.

“The Notre Dame community makes it ‘cool’ to do service work, whereas other schools are more interested in their fraternities or sororities,” Leonardo said. “The University has so many service projects going on around campus, it’s almost hard not to get involved in something.”

Notre Dame alumni have also been involved in developing ideas for active service work. Catherine Kane, Class of 1992, proposed to the Alumni Association that they could organize school break opportunities for students to work on Gulf Coast relief efforts and damage prevention efforts for future storms.

Kane, who has been active with disaster relief for five years, said that her interest in service is the same as any Notre Dame graduate.

“To paraphrase Luke 12:48, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,'” she said. “I have received tremendous gifts and the opportunity to train in the communications and disaster relief fields. It is difficult to describe how rewarding each day is when that day has a positive impact on even one person.”

O’Brien suggested that the trips Kane proposed, which are being considered for the spring or possibly winter break, should focus on the poorest areas.

“New Orleans will rebuild itself, but Biloxi, Mississippi, has so many people who are just the poorest of the poor,” O’Brien said. “Even ACE is reevaluating whether to reopen its schools there.”

Rob Mastro, Class of 1971, B.A., and 1990, M.A., proposed an idea for a caravan that would originate at five cities and make its way down to New Orleans, carrying alumni and supplies for a service trip. The University vetoed this proposal because of liability issues, a decision that disappointed Mastro.

“With people living on the ground with their lives and houses destroyed, this was not a time to be worrying about liability,” he said.

Mastro went ahead and organized a non-Notre Dame sponsored expedition involving 78 volunteers from 11 states. Members of the group stayed in New Orleans for two to three weeks, serving in a variety of volunteer capacities.

Though Notre Dame did not sponsor his trip, Mastro did feel that some of desire to do service stemmed from his years at the University.

“Social concern is part of the great values of Notre Dame,” he said. “It’s great to have a fine education, but if you walk out with a diploma and don’t do anything that attends to the human condition, you’ve wasted your time.”

One large show of financial aid came from the Notre Dame Club of Orange County, which raised $10,000 among its membership and prompted two local high schools to raise an additional $12,000. Of this total, $10,000 was donated directly to the Notre Dame Club of New Orleans.

“We felt they had the best perspective as to where help was needed,” said Tony Roberts, president of the Notre Dame Club of Orange County. “The concept of the ‘Notre Dame family’ is not just a catchphrase, and we felt that our sister club would know how to use the money to help the most people.”

The family of which Roberts spoke did not consist only of alumni, as approximately 50 percent of the Orange County club’s members are not Notre Dame graduates. Family remains a term that is frequently used to characterize the Notre Dame community, Roberts said.

“One of the great things about Notre Dame is that students can say, ‘When I graduate, there’s a family out there for me,'” O’Brien said.

O’Brien suggested that most tales of selfless service will never surface, since few alumni want attention for their post-Katrina efforts.

“Like Notre Dame students, the alumni didn’t do service to make a name,” O’Brien said. “They do it to make an impact upon people. They just want to get out there and serve others.”