Oct. 11, 2012
By: Lauren Chval
On the last day of September, the air is crisp but the sun is warm, amounting to a perfect fall day. In the heart of South Bend, at the Martin Luther King Center, a group of elementary and middle school kids gather to play some football.
The football is flag and the games are only 25 minutes long, but the quarterbacks are Notre Dame student-athletes. The children serve as the receivers and don either green or white pinnies--a few of them will only come up to your waist while others are not too many years away from the size of the Irish athletes throwing them passes. They come in different sizes, but they all have the ND logo emblazoned on their backs.
Some of them don't even play in shoes. One of the kids, Austin, is sandy-haired and a big talker. When asked why he plays without his shoes, he shrugs and says, "I move better with `em off."
The kids will play flag football continuously for two hours every Sunday for four weekends this fall. It is called the Irish Experience League, and it is powered by Notre Dame student-athlete volunteers. Although the program is a favorite of Irish football players like senior captain and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, athletes from every sport come out to help. The youth of the neighborhood surrounding the MLK Center have apparently been asking for the start date for months.
The Irish Experience League is just a small slice of the efforts made by the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC). Described as a kind of student government for athletes, SAAC is responsible for changes as small as putting more bike racks outside the Joyce Center and as significant as sending athletes down to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in October 2011 to help with tornado clean-up efforts.
Each team nominates athletes to become SAAC representatives. They are required to write application essays and go through an interview process--a practice that is meant to prepare them for life beyond graduation--before they become voices for their respective sports.
This year's president, junior Andrew Carreon, is the only representative for the men's golf team. Although he is just beginning his second year as a member of SAAC, Carreon says he knew he wanted to be president as a sophomore.
"I knew I wanted to run," Carreon says. "At the end of last year, I thought, I love this group. It's awesome. I've seen it come so far. It was always a great group, but it wasn't as exciting or productive as it is now."
Carreon isn't kidding. In the 2011-12 school year, Irish student-athletes spent more time giving back to the community than ever before. With athletes from each team contributing, Notre Dame athletes performed 8,178 and a half service hours. To give you an idea of that number's magnitude, consider the fact that the hours are equivalent to 340 consecutive 24-hour days of service.
The athletes didn't just break the record--they shattered it. Last year's total was 900 hours more than the year before, and double the number of recorded hours for the school year before that.
And the Irish aren't done.
The new goal isn't just to break the record. The specific number--8,760 hours--is another 25 consecutive days. Which means this year's volunteering is going to be just that: a full year.
"Our goal is 365," Carreon says with a smile. The loftiness of the goal is not lost on him. "If we could break the record two years in a row, that would be pretty cool."
The question now is, what was the difference last year and how does SAAC continue that level of dedication? Carreon says last year was the beginning of a new era for SAAC, beginning with the hiring of associate athletic director Mike Harrity, which generated an excitement that has infected many more student-athletes.
"It's not that there's more to do. I think it was just that people were more excited about it," says Carreon of the student-athlete participation. "We got the word out better about more things. We just got a lot more involved."
One way to make sure student-athletes get more involved is giving them a place to be heard. There were several changes implemented in SAAC last year, but the first one Carreon mentions is what the group calls the "SAAC Forum."
In previous years, SAAC meetings consisted of only SAAC representatives, but the forum gives all athletes an opportunity to come together to pitch and vote on ideas, and bring forward concerns to possibly initiate change.
The group had its first forum on Sept. 24. In the interest of making things fun, the meeting was catered by Let's Spoon. But the purpose of the meeting was to bounce around ideas for the first big community service project of the year.
Carreon is coyly tightlipped about what the student-athletes have up their sleeves, but promises it will live up to the legacy of commitment and selflessness that SAAC has begun to build.
"People were excited to be there and had awesome ideas and we are just starting to get things done," he assures.
Program coordinator for student welfare and development Sarah Smith attributes the surge in service to an evolution of athlete culture in the past few years.
"In the last couple years, there's been a real focus on community," Smith says. "Jack Swarbrick has made it a big emphasis in his vision for the department and for our athletics teams. I also think SAAC does better each year in communicating and reporting hours more consistently."
While Swarbrick, vice president and director of athletics at Notre Dame, has made service a priority during his tenure, he insists that credit where credit is due. The record would not have been broken without the devotion of countless student-athletes. In addition to achieving balance between coursework and game days, Swarbrick says Irish athletes "continue to amaze me with the spirit of serving others they consistently display.
"Though the new record number of hours is impressive and a mark we're proud of," he says. "The ultimate measure is in the impact made during the hours spent with those we served and the personal growth of each student-athlete who volunteered."
SAAC vice president Chrissie McGaffigan became involved in the group after gaining an interest as a freshman. That year, the SAAC secretary was a senior on the women's tennis team and made the cause look worthwhile to the young McGaffigan.
As she looks forward to the upcoming year, McGaffigan agrees with Swarbrick's assessment--the number of hours dedicated by the group is only an accomplishment in how many people they get to help.
"SAAC is a way to bring the student-athlete body together as one team by making efforts to give back to the community," McGaffigan says. "I am really excited for SAAC this year. With this group of members, I truly believe that we can make some big changes."
If the Irish Experience League is any indication, then SAAC is already affecting change this year.
At the start of that first day in September, around 15 kids showed up to play in the game. By the second hour, they had waved in another dozen of their friends who happened to wander by the center. The number of kids grew to a point that they eventually had to split the group into two games.
But more than just being a place for kids to come play football with their Irish athlete idols, the league is a teaching initiative. The student-athlete volunteers encourage the kids to strive for their dreams and also hope to empower them through sports. To Lewis-Moore, an Irish Experience League leader, that message is the best part of the day.
"I like getting a chance to play with the kids," Lewis-Moore says. "But after we play outside, we do a thirty-minute session about what it means to be a leader and what it means to have character. I think that is the part I find most rewarding."
If the dedication of the Notre Dame athletes--from the field to the community--is any indication, having sports in your life can make all the difference. SAAC hasn't broken its first record.
President Andrew Carreon, Junior, Men's Golf
Vice President Chrissie McGaffigan, Senior, Women's Tennis
Secretary Jaimie Morrison, Senior, Women's Lacrosse
Monogram Club Board Liaison: Randy Babb, Graduate, Men's Track & Field Blas Moros, Senior, Men's Tennis
Center for Social Concerns Liaison: Alex Coccia, Junior, Fencing David Jones, Senior, Cheerleading