Feb. 5, 2009

Courtesy of Notre Dame Sports Information

Ryan Hoff and his teammates on the Notre Dame Lacrosse team have certainly experienced success. The team has consistently drawn national attention for their dominance on the field the past several seasons. Coming off a 14-3 season, and reaching the NCAA quarterfinals, national recognition is well deserved.

However, for Hoff, a senior attacker from Baldwin, Md., the team's success extends well beyond the confines of the lacrosse field. Hoff has consistently been an impact player for the Irish, but the impact he and his teammates have made on the lives of the students at Jefferson Intermediate School the past two years, has been equally rewarding. Midway through the 2006-2007 school year, the team dedicated itself to a mentoring program for students at the South Bend school. A venture that began as somewhat of an experiment has expanded significantly to boost achievement levels the school had never before experienced.

The program, initiated between men's lacrosse coach, Kevin Corrigan, and the Jefferson school administration, has become extremely successful. The partnership has become a top priority of both the school and the lacrosse team as both structure their schedules around the program. Hoff explained that he makes every effort to leave an open timeslot in his schedule to reserve for Jefferson. Similarly, the administration has been extremely excited about the team's involvement and understands the unique opportunity that has been presented to the students at the school. Hoff explained that the mentoring program is a top priority at Jefferson, and students are even excused from classes to allow them to meet with their mentors. The Jefferson administration embraces the philosophy that a few minutes of class time can be made up but mentoring is invaluable.

Hoff explained that the individuals involved in the team's mentoring program are generally considered "high-risk students." Individuals in this category include kids who face significant disadvantages that include problems at home, in school or a mixture of both. These students may be susceptible to unfavorable activities such as gang violence, drugs, or other behaviors that can result in suspension or expulsion from school. Hoff was quick to clarify that many of the students in the program were selected because they had made poor decisions, not because they were "bad kids."

"We were working with good kids who just needed a positive influence, " Hoff explained. "Some were concerned with their grades. Some of them were kids who got in trouble a lot, getting kicked out, problems at home, social problems, any high-risk kid that they thought we could help get back on track."

Each member of the team is assigned to a high-risk young male, with whom he is encouraged to meet with at least weekly. Perhaps most rewarding for the team is the influence they have had on the lives of the kids they work with. While the program is based in an academic setting, the players serve as much more than academic tutors. Each student has different needs due to their backgrounds and experiences. As a result, the members of the Lacrosse team have found themselves filling the role of everything from mentor to coach to advisor and friend. The members of the lacrosse team have become role models for their students, often helping them with schoolwork, sports and discussing personal problems. The positive influence the team has provided to the students at Jefferson is evident. Since the program began, only one high-risk student has been expelled from the school. However, given the fact that the student was a female, and the team only works with male students, it is very rewarding for the team and the school.

"They weren't getting in trouble like they used to. It really showed that they learned a lot and retained a lot from what we were teaching them." Hoff said. "Knowing that is incredible. Mentoring has a significant impact on these kids."

Initially Hoff admits that it was difficult to establish a relationship with the kids. However, the players frequent visits to the school helped to develop the students' trust, eventually forming strong, lasting bonds. Hoff explained many of the players have mentored the same student since the program began two years ago. As a result, the relationships the players develop with their students become extremely close and develop on a deep, personal level. The students become comfortable around their mentors, and confide in them not only as mentors but also as friends. Hoff believes that the bonds that he and his teammates have formed with the students at Jefferson are one of the best parts of the experience.

"It is fun to see the transformation from having a really hard time communicating with them, to forming a relationship that is really strong." Hoff explained. "It is a really cool thing."

In fact, the kids have often requested the players visit more than once weekly, sometimes asking them to visit two or three times a week.

The relationship between the lacrosse program and the students at Jefferson has extended beyond the confines of the school itself. The team has hosted the students for campus visits that have included activities ranging from observing a live lacrosse practice, dinner in the South Dining Hall, and educational opportunities such as a trip to the planetarium in the Jordan Hall of Science. Without the lacrosse team's dedication to the mentoring program, these types of opportunities would otherwise be unavailable to the students at Jefferson. This past spring, due to the construction of the new lacrosse facility, the team played one of their home games at Jefferson. A number of the students they mentor were present at the game and cheered on the team as their number-one fans. The students cheered not only for the team as athletes, but as much more than that - as role models who tremendously impact their lives.

The influence of the lacrosse team on the students at Jefferson has been significant. In fact, the program has expanded this year to include students at Marshall Elementary School, also located in South Bend. Consequently, Hoff has been separated from the student he has mentored the past two years at Jefferson. However, as a testament to the importance of that relationship Hoff developed with his now former student, he plans to continue to visit him. The rigors of his academic workload combined with lacrosse games, practices, and training present an already demanding schedule. However, Hoff explains the mentoring program rates on the same level as school and sport. The rewards associated with the strong relationships that develop are undeniable. "It is definitely a challenge and it adds more to an already busy schedule but it is worth it." Hoff explained. "You put it up there with all the other priorities."

While the younger students at Marshall present new and different challenges, the lacrosse team is more than willing to accept these challenges. In fact, helping these students with their problems puts the challenges they face on the lacrosse field in perspective. The team's work with the community and their dedication to improving the lives of at-risk kids is just one more level of success they have achieved. In fact, the program the lacrosse team started as an experiment is not only a model for other teams at the University of Notre Dame but for schools throughout the country. Currently, Hoff explained that the softball team is implementing a program to provide positive influences for the young females at Jefferson.

"It has become a really good program." Hoff said. "I think college kids, especially student athletes, but if any college student can reach out to the community it means so much to kids." Hoff explained. "I don't think you realize it until you do it and do it for a long time. If you go one time you may feel that the kids don't really appreciate it because they are nervous and they are scared. But once they get used to it and you get used to it, it is an extremely rewarding experience."