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Families share Notre Dame stories

Jillian Barwick | Monday, September 24, 2012

Three families in the Notre Dame community gathered Saturday morning to tell their stories of love, family and Our Lady’s University.


Approximately 500 people attended the “Love Thee Notre Dame” celebration, a gift-planning initiative in Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.


According to the website for the Office of Gift Planning, the initiative was launched this year by the University to focus on “encouraging greater numbers of the Notre Dame family to plant seeds for the future.”


The program began with the performance of an original song by John Scully, a Notre Dame All-American and a 1980 graduate of the University, sung by Cathy Richardson, a singer recognized for “Here Come the Irish.”


Regis Philbin, a 1953 alum, then took the stage for the core of the event. He began by explaining the purpose of the gift-planning initiative.


“Love Thee Notre Dame,” Philbin said. “The final four words of our Alma Mater sum up the powerful emotions and love we all share for Our Lady’s University. One goal of the Love Thee Notre Dame initiative is to create opportunities for alumni, parents and friends to create a stronger future for Notre Dame and a lasting legacy for themselves and their families.”


Philbin said all gifts, no matter the size, have had lasting effects on Notre Dame.


“As you will hear today, planned gifts made by men and women who love and believe in Notre Dame have made a remarkable difference, not only in the life of the University, but also in the lives of countless students,” he said.


Philbin then told the story of his first visit to the Notre Dame campus.


“I went to a pep rally and saw [Irish football coach Frank] Leahy speak,” he said. “He told us to treasure our time at Notre Dame, because we would never experience anything like it again. I believe that being here is the closest experience you will ever have to being in heaven.”


Philbin recalled one job interview he was rejected from before his career took off. After receiving the news, Philbin found himself driving down the Indiana Toll Road instead of the airport to return home.


“I saw the sun was shining on Our Lady who rests on top of the Dome as I drove past the building,” Philbin said. “I drove past the stadium and remembered Coach Leahy’s words. I was going to go back and make my life happen. I was hired for a job in New York, and the rest is history.”


Philbin introduced Frank Belatti, a 1969 graduate, and his wife Cathy, as a prime example of a family that loves Notre Dame.


“In fact, the Belatti’s found a way to share their love for Notre Dame in an absolutely incredible way … by making it possible for an entire family to benefit from a Notre Dame education,” Philbin said.


A video relayed the Belatti’s story of building houses for Habitat for Humanity that transformed into a relationship with a single mother and her five children.


Originally from Nigeria, the Okonokhua’s moved to Atlanta and moved into the 100th house that Frank and Cathy Belatti built.


The Belatti’s decided to make a gift to the University that would provide scholarship assistance to an entire family. The Okonokhuas, who have had three children graduate from Notre Dame and two children currently enrolled, are currently utilizing the gift.


“Cathy and I have been involved with Habitat for Humanity for a long time,” Belatti said. “After meeting the Okonokhuas and building a friendship with them, we have really seen the difference that this opportunity has made in their lives. This scholarship assistance program reminded us of all the ways we love Notre Dame.”


Philbin then invited Laura, Selina and Precious Okonokhua to offer their thanks to the Belatti’s.


“Words cannot express how we feel about them,” Laura Okonokhua, a 2010 graduate, said. “This is a great thing for not only our family, but the other families that will benefit from the Belatti’s generosity.”


Once the Belatti’s exited the stage, Philbin told the story of Florence Dailey, a woman from upstate New York who had no known association with Notre Dame. Yet in 1966, Dailey bequeathed half of her stock shares to the University.


“The substantial impact of this remarkable gift on Notre Dame students will last forever,” Philbin said. “Over the past 40 years, Dailey’s original gift has grown into a truly transformative amount, providing financial assistance to thousands of Notre Dame’s students. This school year alone, 223 students will receive $4.5 million in financial assistance.”


Philbin then introduced Emily de Araujo, a junior at Notre Dame and one of the beneficiaries of Dailey’s gift. De Araujo moved to the United States when she was a year old with her family from Brazil so her brother, who is autistic, could lead a better life.


“We moved to Michigan and had to rough it for a while,” de Araujo said. “It was really hard for my dad, who spoke no English at first. When it came time to apply to college, I started applying for scholarships for low-income families. I applied to every school that allowed this opportunity.”


Notre Dame was the first school to accept de Araujo and offer her the financial aid she needed to attend college.


“The acceptance letter said ‘Welcome Home,’ and Notre Dame was the school that gave me the first chance,” de Araujo said. “I was offered more scholarships to other schools as well, but that didn’t matter. I knew Notre Dame was it.”


After de Araujo left the stage, Philbin played a video that introduced the third and final guest of the day.


“You are about to see a truly remarkable story. It’s a story about the love of a mother and a father for their son. It’s a story about the courage of student who, far more than most, faced the challenges of attending Notre Dame ⎯ what though the odds be great or small,” he said. “It’s a story about how the entire Notre Dame Family responded to make sure that one very special young man shared the Notre Dame experience to the fullest.”


Matt Swinton, a 2012 graduate, suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a group of inherited diseases that cause muscle damage and weakness. Confined to a wheelchair, Matt was able to make the most out of his four years at Notre Dame with the help of his parents, friends and the University.


“Being on campus this weekend and seeing students with their backpacks has made me want to jump in and get some learning done,” Swinton said. “Some of my friends are here for the game. These are some of the guys I will never lose touch with.”


During his four years at Notre Dame, Swinton lived in a room built to be handicap-accessible so he would be physically able to live without his parents.


“When Matt had applied to Notre Dame, we made several visits to the campus and everyone here was very accommodating,” Matt’s father Mike Swinton said. “The spirit and community at Notre Dame was unlike any other school we had visited.”


“We stayed close to campus for Matt’s first semester here because we were concerned about him,” Matt’s mother DeAnn Swinton said. “But after those first months, Mike and I let go and let Matt take charge. For us, Matt being at Notre Dame was a gift from God.”


Thrilled by the University’s effort to assist their son during his time at Notre Dame, the Swinton’s made a planned gift through their wills to the school.


“Through our giving experience, other students with mobile disabilities will see what Notre Dame has to offer them,” Mike said. “We hope other students will have the opportunity to have the experiences Matt had here.”


Philbin then asked Swinton what memory he treasured most from his time at Notre Dame.


“I’ll always remember [singing] the Alma Mater with my friends for the last time at our graduation,” Matt said.