Student Athletes: Social Justice Through Community Engagement

Author: Center for Social Concerns

For the third year in a row the Center for Social Concerns (CSC) offered one-credit, community-based learning courses over the summer in which 67 Notre Dame football players spent mornings in the classroom discussing principles of social justice and career development that is ethically and socially engaging, and then afternoons interacting with participants of local area organizations.

Bill Purcell ’86, ’92 M.Div., and Mike Hebbeler, M.A., both of the Center for Social Concerns, designed the courses for student athletes to learn about poverty and injustice, and to learn about themselves: about empathy and compassion, resolve and resilience, respect and dignity, and maybe most importantly, about their own responsibility to work toward a more just and humane world.

“The goal is to develop our students spiritually, socially, intellectually by getting them into the community, forming relationships with community partners, working with vulnerable populations, and thereby developing empathy, compassion and a concern for the common good,” says co-instructor Michael Hebbeler.

“Our refugee children looked forward to these days with the players. But the appreciation was for the person, not for the name. These kids had never heard of American football or Notre Dame before!” says Esther van Stam, casework coordinator at the American Red Cross. “The football players in turn told me they learned a lot about refugees … some stereotypes were broken down. Some of our clients had a prejudice against African Americans, and some of the players in turn had certain ideas about Muslims and Arabs. This was a good opportunity to see a person instead of a label,” van Stam adds.

Notre Dame student athlete Kendall Moore, who spent afternoons with refugee children at the Red Cross says, “This course helps us more than we would imagine. We come in, we think that we are helping out little kids, but the more time we hang out with them, the more you get to learn a little more about yourself and it puts things in perspective. So its good for both of us.”

Connecting with the community is a key element in assisting these students with their own learning. It provides them with practical understanding of the theories taught in the classroom and begins to develop the skills they need to be leaders,” says Purcell, co-instructor and associate director at the CSC.

Since 2010, the students have spent afternoons with community partners such as the Robinson Community Learning Center, the Center for the Homeless, the Red Cross, La Casa de Amistad, Healthwin, the Boys & Girls Club, Perley Primary Center, the Juvenile Justice Center, and South Bend’s Logan Center.

Since Coach Brian Kelly’s arrival he has made it clear that his team would be involved in the local community through community-based learning and service. In 2010, Coach Kelly and the Center for Social Concerns worked to create opportunities for his student-athletes through a series of summer community-based learning courses that have run each summer since. Nearly every player currently on the team, and all starters, has participated in one or more of the courses.

According to Purcell, “These courses have been key to our student-athletes intellectual and spiritual development—two of Coach Kelly’s five developmental cornerstones—and reflect the mission of the University, to cultivate in our students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many.”

Joe Schmidt who met a young boy named Erin at the Center for the Homeless says, “I think it’s all about giving back and learning about ourselves. I met Erin last week. I saw a lot of me in him which was really cool. I definitely want to stay involved with Erin while I’m here. I don’t want to see what happened to his family happen to him. I want to see him get out and go do his own thing; go to college, get a job. That’s my main goal, to see him succeed.”

Karen Martindale, an administrator at Healthwin, described the delight and anticipation of residents as they watched out the windows each day for students’ arrival. One elderly resident took extra time getting ready for the arrival of her assigned student. “It was nice to get dressed and ready—especially to have a young man calling!” she said.

Jake Golic who spent his time at Healthwin may have summed up the experience best. “For me this is more important than anything you can do on the football field. If you can give back its way more important than how many touchdowns or catches you have.”