Recent Notre Dame graduate Gareth D. Zehrbach was teaching eighth-grade at Saint Anthony’s Middle School in Texas last March when one of his students collapsed in phys ed class and died of a massive heart attack.
It was especially traumatic because there were only 11 eighth-graders — and 30 students overall — in Saint Anthony’s, which is in Robstown, a small, poor and largely Hispanic town near Corpus Christi. Even before the death, it had been a bad year for the middle school. A month earlier the school’s building had burned down because of a faulty light fixture. No one was hurt, but it forced classes to relocate to portable buildings in the parking lot and backyard of a sister elementary school’s campus.
Zehrbach, who was finishing up his two-year commitment to the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, didn’t want his students’ last memory of eighth-grade to be of their classmate dying. So with support from several Notre Dame officials, alumni and alumni clubs, he organized a field trip. To Notre Dame.
The seven eighth-graders whose parents allowed them to go on the trip got the royal treatment: tours of the stadium, the Main Building, the Basilica, an audience with Father Ted Hesburgh, a night-time pilgrimage to the Grotto.
Back in Texas one of the students said in his graduation speech that he was thankful to have had Zehrbach for a teacher because the Zehrbach showed him what opportunities are out there if he tries hard in high school. He said he never knew places as great as Notre Dame existed.
Says Zehrbach, “Maybe it is true that Notre Dame is only for dreamers, but dreams such as these are not common in Robstown, Texas. Many times reality has its genesis in just such a dream.”
The ACE program provides teachers for understaffed parochial schools in dioceses throughout the Southeast, South and Southwest. Most of the participants are new Notre Dame grads. They’re paid a living stipend and after two years of teaching and summer study earn a master’s degree in education.