Nov. 22, 2011
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - With Thanksgiving around the corner, it is that time of year in which we think about thanks for which are thankful.
A healthy family. Food on the table. A roof over your head.
While many take such things for granted, several Notre Dame student-athletes and athletic department staff members received a reality check during October's fall break when they traveled to Alabama to assist with local tornado relief efforts.
The trip, called Fight for Tide, brought 24 students and six administrators to Tuscaloosa to work in collaboration with Project Team Up, an initiative to rebuild communities partnered with Alabama head football coach Nick Saban's foundation Nick's Kids.
Students representing the Notre Dame baseball, cross country, cheerleading, fencing, men's golf, women's lacrosse, rowing and track and field teams were selected for the trip.
Sarah Smith, program coordinator for student athlete welfare and development at Notre Dame, said the idea to help Tuscaloosa began with a former Notre Dame employee, Tim Cavanaugh who currently works in the ticket office at Alabama. Cavanaugh e-mailed the athletics office at Notre Dame this past summer and asked them to collect relief supplies that Alabama would pay to ship.
Smith, who is originally from Oklahoma, began to come up with an idea of a service trip when students started talking over the summer about going to down to Tuscaloosa to help.
Here is their story ...
Saturday, Oct. 15
Today we departed for Tuscaloosa for the week to help with the rebuilding process.
I'm very excited for the week to come since I've never been on a service trip like this before. I decided to apply to participate in this trip because I've always loved volunteering and I strive to do all that I can to help those in need. Cheerleading, class and my lab position keep me very busy, so I was happy to get to opportunity to volunteer during my fall break.
Last night we met as a group for the first time and heard from a couple of different speakers. A priest who was living in Tuscaloosa at the time that the tornado hit gave us insight about what it was like from a first-hand perspective. He also provided us with general information about the area to prepare us for our trip.
We left very early at 6:30 a.m. and arrived at the retreat center later in theevening. During the drive down, we stopped in Louisville to have lunch with the local Notre Dame alumni club there. Though we were all tired, we had a great time eating pizza and interacting with the alumni. We were all so thankful that they hosted us for lunch.
Upon arrival at the retreat center in Alabama, the Catholic parish here had already set up food for us in the kitchen, which was extremely generous. We are truly blessed that people like those from the Louisville alumni club and the folks from the Catholic parish here are taking us in and giving us this wonderful opportunity.
I know that this week will be a great experience, and I can't wait to get to better know the other student-athletes on the trip and meet some of the locals.
Monday, Oct. 17
The second day that we were at the site, I continued to struggle with grasping the extent of the destruction that was caused by the storm.
It seems so unbelievable and paradoxical that nature, which often is a source of life and nourishment, can also be the dealer of so much death and destruction. And all of it happened so quickly.
It has left me so much more appreciative of all the advantages that I have been given and reminds me not to take anything for granted - whether it is my health, my possessions or my family and friends - because, as seen in this instance, it can all be taken away in a heartbeat.
These last couple days have also been an eye-opener to me regarded my faith. I have found myself growing into my faith so quickly and so strongly that I find it hard to believe myself. Yes, I have been a practicing Catholic throughout my life. However, looking back now, it seemed as if I was just running though the motions: go to church and then put God away until next Sunday.
And yes, I believe in Christ and God, but I suppose you could say that it was never a crucial part of my life. But after seeing everything I have seen here, I have realized that God really should become a greater part of my life. Because those who survived, but lost nearly everything else, still had God. And if I was in their shoes, I'm not sure that, at this point in time, I would have God. As this trip progresses, I hope to continue to grow in my faith and carry thisgrowth on into the school year and ultimately, the rest of my life.
One more thing that I have thought about today is the constant mention, when speaking to students from Alabama, of the "Notre Dame bubble." This is the idea that, when we are at school, we are set in our own mindset and have no idea what is occurring in the world around us.
I don't believe this to intentionally be a negative thing, but upon reflection, it seems quite egocentric. It is an individualist approach, and, quite honestly, when I was coming down to here to help and volunteer, I had no idea the area's state was still this bad.
I think that when we hear about a tragedy (if we hear about it) we feel bad for a short amount of time, and then forget about it.
This ignorance is not the way I wish to approach world events, and so, when I return to South Bend, I am going to make a greater attempt to learn about the events of the world and think, pray, or help those who may need help, even if I am not aware of it.
Thursday, Oct. 20
Throughout the week the whole group - and myself included - has struggled to find purpose in exactly what we were doing. We found it hard to see a tangible result in moving a pile of garbage and dirt from one area to another.
A lot of people all around the Alabama community have openly shared their appreciation of us coming down, but apart of us still wanted to see the full effect of what it was we were doing.
Today, as we were cleaning up a residential lot there was a newly built house behind it with a well-manicured lawn. As Maggie Tamasitis, Tommy Chase and I looked onto it, we all stopped and discussed how the very lot we were working on would soon become another house like that one. A house where a family could live and share new memories they may have lost in the tornado.
In that brief visualization we realized that we weren't exactly building them their new house, but we were building an opportunity. While we have been getting frustrated with not being given what we thought to be more meaningful tasks, every great recovery starts with hope and opportunity.
As a group we've come to realize that we are, in a way, cleaning the slate for a new foundation, not just a foundation of a home, but a foundation of a stronger community that can bounce back from this tragedy.
Sunday, Oct. 23
Sarah Smith ('08)
Program Coordinator, Notre Dame Student Welfare & Development
Looking back over the experience in Tuscaloosa there are so many memories and moments I would have loved to share, but some have lasted starkly in my mind.
What an incredible trip! Even before we left Notre Dame, I could feel in my heart that this would be an experience I would never forget. Bill Purcell of the Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns led a two-hour seminar for the group the night before we left for Alabama. He explained the ethos of service learning and brought in a guest speaker who had lived through the Tuscaloosa tornado to share his experiences of the disaster and culture of the South.
Watching video of the tornado awoke angst in our souls as we tried to understand what we would be witnessing once we got there. My vision for the trip was very simple: bring hope and solidarity to a community in a state of grieving and recovering. From this mindset, I knew the student-athletes and staff involved would be ready to give of themselves emotionally, physically, and spiritually to the Tuscaloosa community.
The first day we were in Tuscaloosa was a Sunday. The organization we were to work with during the week did not operate on Sundays so we took the day to explore the University of Alabama.
First, we attended mass in the morning at the University parish (St. Francis of Assisi). Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his wife were in attendance. The Catholic community there welcomed us and spoke with us after the mass celebration. The parish continued to be an amazing support for our group throughout the week by providing us with meals and spending time with us almost every day.
Another meaningful experience we had that first day was when we met with Mal Moore, the athletic director at the University of Alabama. Moore and a couple of the associate athletic directors met us at the football stadium and walked us down to the field and shared stories of Alabama traditions and how closely linked Notre Dame and Alabama are from Bear Bryant to Knute Rockne and everywhere between. It was so amazing to be treated with such wonderful hospitality by an Alabama legend and feel the sense of community growing between our institutions.
I cannot say enough about how fabulous the Alabama athletic department was to us during our visit. Jill Lancaster, Alabama's director of life skills, was out at our work site everyday to make sure we had everything we needed and brought student-athletes out to working with us.
The women's soccer team surprised us with frozen yogurt one day and its head coach, Todd Bramble, addressed our group by thanking us for giving our time and energy to their community.
The baseball team gave us a tour of their facilities and shared with us the stories of the two athletes that survived the tornado first hand which were in an article of Sports Illustrated.
Head softball coach Pat Murphy gave us a tour of the softball facilities, football facilities, took us to dinner and brought his entire team and staff out to work with us on the sites.
The student-athlete advisory council shared a meal with us as well. It was so powerful and inspiring to embrace and be embraced by a community like that.
Lastly, I want to remember the warm and fuzzy moments - and I will - but there were other moments that we experienced everyday that pushed us all to grow emotionally and spiritually. These were the true moments.
Every person we spoke to had a story of what happened to him or her or a loved one during the storm. What was even more remarkable to me was that each person wanted to recount and relive that moment in order to share with us this deep tragedy.
I felt that it was healing for them to engage with our group, and perhaps we brought a sense of hope and peace by simply standing together with them for a week.
This trip accomplished what I wanted to share with the Notre Dame family when I visited a similarly devesated area in Joplin - being there, with the community, it's completely different, it's emotional, it's real, it's spiritual, it humbles you in a way that can't be taught in the classroom or on the field.
Thanks, peace and blessings to everyone who helped make this trip possible. It was an honor to be part of the Notre Dame and Alabama family.
Go Irish. Roll Tide.