A commitment to the neighborhood

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

A little more than five years ago a single-story, red-brick building that had housed a grocery and a Goodwill store at the “Five Corners” intersection just south of campus was purchased by the University. There were plenty of suitors for the ample space, but the University decided to use the facility to make a commitment to the Northeast Neighborhood, to establish a community center, educational programs and Notre Dame presence in the residential area whose health and well-being are so interwoven with the school’s.

Today the building houses a purposeful commotion of programs and people, and serves as the hub for activities reaching to various corners of the city. In its five years of operation the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC) has brought together more than 3,500 volunteers and program participants in an impressive sampling of projects—yoga classes and computer classes, piano lessons and healthy-living workshops, tutoring sessions for neighborhood schoolchildren, business skills and language courses, entrepreneurship ventures for kids who may not normally think so boldly about their career options and financial futures. Violence prevention programs fostered by RCLC have touched the lives of more than 8,500 South Bend students (see accompanying story).

The impetus, says Jay Caponigro ’91, who moved from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns to head the RCLC, was for the University to build better relationships with its neighbors by using Notre Dame people and resources in educationally focused programming. Faculty lend their time and expertise; Notre Dame students get involved with the local residents. Caponigro talks about “the healthy development of individuals” and RCLC being “a hopeful place and a really fun place.” Center programs also focus on buoying the surrounding culture, which can be less hopeful and less healthy and less encouraging.

This past spring 175 RCLC tutors worked one-on-one with South Bend schoolchildren at four sites to improve the students’ reading skills. Dozens of other students flock into the center for after-school educational programs and activities. Young people and adults can get career training, hear lectures, take art classes. The center hosts Young Life meetings, General Education Degree and English as a Second Language classes, a Cub Scout troop and the Youth Justice Project, which responds to crimes by young people by bringing the victim and perpetrator face-to-face for learning, healing and restitution.

Computer classes for senior citizens became computer clubs when the “students” didn’t want to stop after one introductory course but have stayed together for years using their evolving skills to engage new projects and challenges. This spring the “Tuesday club” decided to divide into teams to debate the legalization of prostitution, scouring the Internet for United Nations documents, church statements, social science papers, chat rooms and blogs to help build a case that they argued, complete with microphone and observers, during the climactic class.

RCLC staffer Luther Tyson heads business skills development activities, a financial literacy program, in which participants learn money-management principles, and an entrepreneurship program, sponsored by Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, in which neighborhood students take part in a business ventures competition with finalists getting a trip to New York City with a tour of Wall Street.

Caponigro is mindful of Notre Dame being a partner, not the power, in the Northeast Neighborhood. He seeks collaboration not only with the local residents but also with the hospitals, schools, churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, Youth Service Bureau and other agencies. Only about a third of RCLC’s funding comes from the University; the rest is sought from business partners, local organizations, donors and government funding.

“This is a place of great hope,” he explains, “a place where we try to change the culture in terms of education, reading skills, business opportunities and violence so more people can go beyond the expectations of others—people who have often encountered so many setbacks in their lives. I just don’t like to see the powerless stay powerless, people who otherwise have so much God-given potential to go out and change the world.”