Notre Dame College Students, Campus Ministry Spend Spring Break Serving with Habitat in Alabama

Notre Dame College is taking one of its larger more diverse groups of students on the 2018 spring break service immersion to a state historically known—and recently cited—for struggles with poverty and social injustice.

More than a dozen members of the campus community, with majors ranging from business to criminal justice to education, will travel with the College’s Office of Campus Ministry March 4-10 to Birmingham, Ala., to spend the week working with Habitat for Humanity.

The annual immersion includes hands-on learning via visits to historic and cultural sites in the state known for American Civil Rights landmarks as well as lessons in servant leadership born of the students’ volunteer efforts to build and renovate homes for low-income residents. The Notre Dame group also grows in community and spirituality throughout the shared, living and learning experience.

This year, two Notre Dame students are making the trip for the second consecutive year. Juniors Anna Benko and Sarah Tolson, along with Anita Hooley Yoder, coordinator of campus ministry at the College, also participated in the Habitat Birmingham immersion in 2017.

Servant Leadership

Benko said the repeat journey is another chance to put her “heart and soul” into helping those in need, and to lead and learn by working alongside others.

Alabama, often called the “Heart of Dixie,” is mostly known for its historical role in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but just months ago members of the United Nations visited rural areas of the state to draw attention to continued poverty and growing health and environmental issues there. Some UN representatives even unfavorably compared areas of Alabama to developing nations in other parts of the world.

Throughout the spring break immersion in Birmingham, Alabama’s most populous city, the Notre Dame group assists Habitat for Humanity in new home construction and house rehabilitation for low-income residents. Birmingham is Alabama’s largest city and considered one of the poorest urban areas in the U.S., with about 29 percent of its population living in poverty, which is nearly double the 15 percent poverty rate for most municipalities in the country.

The Notre Dame students and staff work about seven hours each weekday on tasks that range from caulking to roofing to installing windows and doors and even adding insulation. They take only a 30-minute break to eat the lunches they make and pack themselves.

“For spring break we could be doing a lot of other things, but you don’t think of it as hard work. It can be exhausting, but you are doing it for other people and for a good cause,” Benko said.


On the Habitat Birmingham immersion, the group gains firsthand knowledge of homebuilding and experience helping others less fortunate but also learns about a time and place they likely only knew from history books.

The Notre Dame team takes one weekday off from working with Habitat to explore the area and learn about the city's role in the American Civil Rights Movement. They visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, among other landmarks.

The city was known in the 1960s for deeply rooted civil rights unrest that included violence toward “Freedom Riders” testing enforcement of newly enacted laws against segregation at interstate bus terminals. National intervention was required. Local authorities at the time also supported the use of fire hoses and police dogs to curb protests. Statues commemorating some of those events now line Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, where many demonstrations were conducted.

In addition, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for his participation in a protest of segregated downtown businesses in the city and penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“As with many community-based learning opportunities, students remember more by actually going and doing,” Yoder said. “The learning that happens together throughout the days during immersions can be so much richer than in classrooms.”


The Notre Dame group travels the more than 700 miles from campus to the city in northcentral Alabama in College-certified vans and stays together in the Habitat Birmingham volunteer house. From making meals to booking shower times to respecting sleep schedules to killing spiders for each other, they grow as a College community.

“You definitely come out with however many people are on the trip as your new best friends,” Benko said. “It really brings out the sense of family at Notre Dame. You gain extra people who will have your back and even more people who will want to see you do better once you return.”

On the immersion, both Benko and Tolson said they develop kinship not only with their immediate Notre Dame colleagues but also with other student groups from across the country serving at the work sites and with members of the Habitat organization and area volunteers. Last year, Notre Dame partnered with a Florida-area university on a house in Birmingham.

The College contingent connects with residents of the city, too, and not just those who will be moving into the Habitat houses they help rehab. Tolson said last year she talked with people who are homeless and living on Birmingham streets, with owners of small businesses where they stopped to shop and with those working at the monuments and historic sites they see.

This year, the group is planning to share a meal at Eagle's Restaurant, a family-operated local lunch counter that has been a fixture in the city since 1951. The establishment also utilizes fresh produce from a local farmer’s market.

“It’s a good opportunity to get away from what is known and to see a different reality, to look at different perspectives on life,” Tolson said. “You learn to focus not on differences but on commonalities, just treating people as people.”


For Tolson, the immersion this year is another opportunity to experience a sense of her own—as well as share with others in—spirituality.

In addition to the travel experience, students attend weekly preparation meetings led by the Office of Campus Ministry in the months prior to the trip. They get to know their College companions and their destination city. They explore where their individual and collective talents meet the needs of the world.

“I have been able to learn a lot about a lot of different people from school. Being a small campus, you get to know a lot of the people in your major. You take a lot of classes with the same people throughout the year, but with this trip you get to know different people. And you get to know them more personally,” Tolson said. “This trip has helped me branch out on campus and branch out beyond myself.”

The team also prays together throughout the trip, and not just at meals, but also with Habitat at the start and end of each work day.

“Anytime you can go someplace out of your normal routine, out of your comfort zone, you have an opportunity to grow spiritually,” Yoder said. “Then to combine serving others with an openness to honest conversation, that creates a recipe for spiritual transformation.”

In addition to Yoder, Tolson and Benko, members of the campus community making the Habitat Birmingham immersion this year are students Madalyn Cataldo, Antonea Crawford, Samantha Emmons, Athene Goodman, Beca Kimmet, Da'Qonn Pulley, Owen Reynolds and Ciera Stewart, with faculty member Jacqi Loewy, associate professor of communication and theatre, and staff member Kenneth Brown, assistant director of residence life and student conduct.

About the Birmingham Habitat Chapter

Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity continually has ranked among the top Habitat organizations in the U.S. and has been recognized among top builders of affordable housing in the country. The chapter generally partners with more than 100 individuals each year to build or improve the places these families call home.

Established in 1987, Habitat Birmingham serves Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair and Walker counties in Central Alabama. The chapter also operates a restore facility, accepting donations of furniture, household items and building materials for use in Habitat houses.

About the City of Birmingham

Birmingham is located at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and has more green space per capita than many other cities of similar size in the United States. It is one of the few places in the world where coal, limestone and iron ore, three raw materials in steel, occur naturally within a close area.

Similar to Cleveland, Birmingham was once an industrial center and still supports some of the nation’s largest steel companies but also is becoming known as a medical and research center, with biomedical and technology, as well as construction and engineering, firms. The city also has growing banking and service sectors.

February 2018

About Notre Dame College

For almost a century, Notre Dame College has educated a diverse population in the liberal arts for personal, professional and global responsibility. Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1922, the College has grown strategically to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of students and the dramatic changes in higher education. But it has never lost sight of its emphasis on teaching students not only how to make a good living but also how to live a good life.

Today, the College offers bachelor’s degrees in 30 disciplines plus a variety of master's degrees, certification programs and continuing and professional development programs for adult learners on campus and online. Notre Dame College offers NCAA Division II intercollegiate athletic programs for men and women and is located in a picturesque residential neighborhood just 25 minutes from the heart of Cleveland. Hallmarks of the Notre Dame experience include stimulating academics, personalized attention of dedicated faculty and staff, and small class sizes.

Notre Dame College is located at 4545 College Road in South Euclid. For further information contact Brian Johnston, chief communications officer, at 216.373.5252 or


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