Catholic athletes engage at-risk youth, poor

More than 300 students and staff of D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., participated in the 10th annual Putting Hunger on the Run 5k Fun Run & Walk in early April to benefit the Friends of Night People. 

“We’re very big on service to the community, so it just seemed natural to team up with the soup kitchen,” said Dr. G. John Abbarno, race director and philosophy teacher. 

Each year, the race raises from $8,000 to $12,000, which goes toward feeding the poor and homeless. Last year, the soup kitchen served 83,000 meals. The non-denominational charity, which does not receive federal funds, also distributes clothing and school supplies, and provides health services from Buffalo University School of Medicine. There also is an eye clinic with donated eyeglasses, and foot screening and care. 

D’Youville College does not directly support the soup kitchen, but is involved through the race and with monthly outings from the campus ministry. Abbarno is past president and a member of the board of directors for Friends of Night People. 

“Buffalo is a very impoverished area,” he said. “Being involved with the soup kitchen teaches the students about social responsibilities, and those who see this side of life come back changed and want to go back. I teach an ethics class and we spend a lot of time on poverty issues, and in some ways, it’s an eye opener. There’s a job to be done in Buffalo and there are no shortages of places that students can help. They may want to go to the soup kitchen, or they may want to go somewhere else. And when they do go, I get a lot of feedback, especially when they see the number of children coming in.” 

Being involved with the poor shows the students the importance of living out the mission to be more charitable to the less fortunate, Abbarno added. “It also reminds people that ‘Catholic charity’ is not just the organization. It is making a sincere effort to help those who are underprivileged, and it’s really following Christ’s example. After having experiences like this, students are more encouraged to recognize and focus on others.  

“There’s a tendency at this age — and not just this generation but all generations — to become self-absorbed,” he said. “So it’s important that they do charitable acts. I think that attitude follows habit, and if they develop a habit, their attitude will develop a significant change.” 

Abbarno has great hopes for today’s students, he said, and praise for what their acts of charity are reflecting about Catholic higher education.

Community involvement

There’s more to winning games for the athletic teams at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif. Community outreach is so important that in 2011, the college won a community engagement award from the Pacific West Conference. 

“It’s good for the athletes to be integrated with the people around us, and to work with the kids in our area,” Scott Kimmelman, sports information director, said. “It’s a tradition, and it’s something that we emphasize at the college, and that our coaches emphasize.” 

Twice a year, the men’s and women’s soccer teams and basketball teams organize a social mixer for children and adults with developmental and other disabilities. 

“I had no idea what to expect, but then all of the sudden I was in a pretty heated game of ‘red light, green light’ and the night took off from there. It was great,” said Jack Pasquini, a freshman basketball player. 

Senior forward Hilary Perry-Smith added, “I love it every time we work with them. Everybody is always so excited. You have no choice but to have fun.” 

When the men’s basketball team spent a day sorting and packing donations at the Second Harvest Food Bank, freshman guard Joey Bennett was impressed with the amount of donated food that the agency provides. Junior swingman Geoff Hartman added that it was fun and fulfilling to be part of the project. 

The women’s softball team participated in a 10-week program with the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, which helps underprivileged girls to become involved with sports. The activities also emphasize exercise and keeping positive attitudes. 

In other projects, the volleyball team participated in Big Pink Night to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness, and two students from each team form the Student Athletic Advisory Committee that raises money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. 

“These kinds of activities give our athletes a sense of accomplishment and a sense of giving back,” Kimmelman said.

Promoting hope

“Youth: From Crisis to Hope” was the theme at the annual Call to Action Day in March at Notre Dame de Namur when more than 300 students and staff participated in 27 activities. 

Notre Dame de Namur
Call to Action Day at Notre Dame de Namur University, Belmont, Calif. Courtesy of Notre Dame de Namur

“Of faith, hope and charity, hope is probably the most ethereal of the virtues, and we often turn it into wishful thinking,” said Jim McGarry, the interim director for the Sister Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement. “But that’s not what hope is about.” 

Hope is about young people seeing past the surfaces of the streets of their neighborhoods and knowing that life is not supposed to be a dead end. Hope is not expecting to go to jail, McGarry said, and not going to so many funerals that they are imagining their own deaths. 

“Hope is the central virtue in our tradition and that’s very much what the resurrection is about,” he said. “Resurrection is the work of hope, and these kids often end up in what seems to be hopeless situations. That’s what gang culture is all about. Kids get so pessimistic about whether they are even going to live.” 

On Call to Action Day, university students show them that there are other sides to life. This year, they took 30 young people sailing around San Francisco Bay, and another 30 hiked on the richly biodiverse San Bruno Mountain. Another group went to the Marine Science Institute for a coastal science event, and other students played games at a college fair to get them excited about the possibilities available to them with a college education. 

“It shows the at-risk students that pursuing education and knowledge is actually connected to something,” McGarry said. “That’s hope, and I think that the real lively sense of hope that the Holy Spirit gives is what’s most needed in the spiritual lives of our people, young and old.” 

In the simple pleasures of a hike or sailing on Call to Action Day, the university students can take at-risk youth to the top of a mountain to see a distant view from on high, or the smooth sailing on an expanse of water. 

“The youth may translate these experiences into their own lives, when life comes closing in on them and they just don’t see that horizon out there,” McGarry said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.