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Football players tackle local service

Tori Roeck | Thursday, October 6, 2011

After fielding questions from reporters about the upcoming Air Force game Tuesday, junior Cierre Wood lit up when he talked about Christian, a young boy he met at the South Bend Center for the Homeless this summer through a one-credit service learning course offered by the Center for Social Concerns (CSC).

Co-taught by Professors Bill Purcell and Mike Hebbeler, the class combined guest speakers and lectures in the morning with community service activities in the afternoon.

“[The class] gives [student-athletes] a way to engage with the community to learn about themselves,” Hebbeler said. “To be stretched, to be challenged and hopefully to experience opportunities that really speak to them in hopes of going forward.”

Wood said becoming friends with Christian through the class reminded him of how blessed he was.

“Everybody isn’t lucky enough to have a regular, normal life,” Wood said. “I see [these kids], and they’re still laughing and having fun, and taking life for what it is. It just makes you appreciate the little things you have in your life.”

Wood said he keeps a picture in his locker that Christian gave him in gratitude of his friendship.

“Everyone was playing duck, duck, goose, and [Christian] was just over there by himself,” Wood said. “I didn’t really like to see him over there by himself so I wanted to go over there an introduce myself to try to make a new friend… He gave me a picture, and on the back it said ‘Thank you for being my friend. I really appreciate everything that you’ve done.’ It really hit home for me.”

According to a University press release, organizations participating in the course included the South Bend Center for the Homeless, the Logan Center, the Red Cross, La Casa de Amistad, Healthwin and the Perley Primary Center.

Although open to all students, the class was geared toward student-athletes, whose schedules restrict them from engaging in much community service during the school year, Hebbeler said.

“One of the purposes of the class is to give these student-athletes the opportunity to experience what the majority of Notre Dame students are experiencing,” Hebbeler said. “They’re very confined by their responsibilities as athletes.”

Purcell said missing out on service opportunities because of athletic responsibilities deprives student-athletes of an important aspect of the Notre Dame experience.

“[Service] is part of a Notre Dame education,” Purcell said.

The theme of the course was “ethical leaders in service,” Purcell said, and touched on issues of race, economics, sexuality and ethics.

According to the press release, 54 Notre Dame football players participated in the class this summer.

“Some of them were reluctant at first because it was different,” Hebbeler said. “It was really great for Bill and I to see the transformation over the period of the course, [to see] guys really warming up to folks in the community and clients at these different organizations and forming real relationships, having discussions and listening to some of the challenges and developing empathy.”

Purcell said both the student-athletes and the community members whom they helped this summer gained from the experience.

“There’s a mutuality,” Purcell said. “They’re building the common good together by learning from each other.”

Fifth-year senior David Ruffer also worked with children at the Center for the Homeless, and he said the friendships he made with the children there were truly genuine.

“They broke down all these barriers and saw us as people who wanted to hang out with them, and as a result, they just wanted to hang out with us,” Ruffer said. “It’s pretty rare that people just look at us as people as opposed to Notre Dame football players. It was really refreshing that these kids were so straight with us.”

Ruffer said his favorite experience was making friends with a young boy named Eric.

“Me and my buddy Eric played a game where basically I had to kneel whenever he pointed his finger at me, and I was on the playground, so that was a lot of fun,” he said. “You could tell he had a lot of pent-up energy, so I was happy I could help him release some of it.”

Senior Mike Golic Jr. worked at Healthwin, a specialized care facility. He said he enjoyed getting to know patients through facilitating different activities for them.

“My favorite personally was when we did manicure day the first Friday we were there for the ladies there,” Golic said. “All of us got to get our hands dirty with that, paint some nails, and get out of our element a little bit. It was a lot of fun.”

Golic said he gained a new perspective from witnessing the patients’ struggles.

“We saw an 18-year-old girl who was a victim of a car accident who was just starting to blink again, and that was progress for her,” Golic said. “Every once and a while when you think you’re having a bad day… there are people out there who are really struggling with a lot, fighting through a lot, and you can draw strength from those people and what they go through.”

Purcell said many of the student-athletes have continued their relationships with the organizations they worked with during the summer.

“I know student-athletes have been invited to birthday parties, they continued volunteering at particular sites, and they’ve gone on and brought friends to the sites,” Purcell said. “I’ve even heard from [student-athletes’] parents … that they’ve been impacted.”

Hebbeler said these experiences put the University’s mission into action.

“All the CSC courses are focused on fulfilling the Notre Dame mission of educating the heart and mind,” Hebbeler said, “What a great opportunity for student-athletes to be a part of that and be formed in that way through these experiences.”