High school classroom wins trip to Notre Dame through charity clothing drive
By KERRY SMITH
Michael Panarello was fast Thursday.
Donning his Oakcrest High track and field uniform, he placed in the long jump and finished with a quick enough time in the 100-meter dash to earn four varsity points for his New Jersey high school team.
Those four points were good enough to give his team the edge and the win.
"I scored four points and we won the meet by three," Panarello said with pride.
But Panarello wasn't fast enough for several of his schoolmates. The senior's track and field endeavors were holding up 24 of his classmates' and two teachers' weekend plans — a whirlwhind road trip to Notre Dame.
While Panarello's 100-meter race was over in seconds, his and his classmates' trip lasted about 65 hours. But the plans for it started months ago.
Competing for charity
It all started in the fall when seniors Tara Penman and Kristen Schlachter proposed a project for their Social Studies seminar class. They wanted to organize a clothing drive to benefit less fortunate Africans through the Dakar World Peace Academy in Senegal.
They proposed a plan to make the drive a contest between Oakcrest's homerooms and as incentive, let the winning class create its own day off. It was a tempting plan sure to create some competition, but Penman had no idea what a success the drive would be.
"The drive went so well," Penman said. "Between all the homerooms we raised 1,500 items of clothing to send to Dakar. It took a lot of work but it was worth it."
In the end, the drive raised more than 9,000 items of clothing for the Academy.
That work was made a lot easier by the idea of one man —health teacher Jack Bottinger.
The man with a plan
As the clothing drive got underway and donations were steady but not stellar, Bottinger had an idea. What if his homeroom class donated enough clothes to win the contest and then designed its day off around Notre Dame's Blue-Gold football game? A three-day 1,446-mile round trip wasn't exactly what Penman had envisioned when she proposed the idea, but she and her classmates weren't surprised.
"Mr. Bottinger is a complete and total ND fanatic," Penman said.
Fellow senior Annita Bailey agreed.
"He's in his room playing the Notre Dame Fight Song all the time," Bailey said. "Early in the morning he's got it on every single day."
Senior Matt Pieper knew how much the trip meant to Bottinger.
"He's always talking about Notre Dame. And now he finally gets to take us," Pieper said.
Bottinger, a long-time Notre Dame fan who has been out to Notre Dame several times, wanted to share the experience with his students and found an outlet to do it with the Dakar clothing drive contest.
"Notre Dame is really something special,"Bottinger said. "You walk into the Stadium and the yellow jackets attack you. `Welcome to Notre Dame,' they say. And when you're leaving, they shake your hand and ask you to come back. It really is something."
It's something so special that Bottinger didn't have a hard time convincing his class that the trip was a good idea.
"I proposed the idea to the class one day and the next day alone they brought in about 400 items of clothing," Bottinger said. "They were really excited about it from the start."
In the end, Bottinger's freshman homeroom donated about 1,500 items to the drive and won the contest.
With the win in hand, the class, along with upperclassman organizers, began preparations for the trip. Even though the prize was awarded just to Bottinger's class, the teacher filled the seats on the trip left vacant by students who could not go with those who were instrumental in planning the clothing drive. While it was easy to come to an agreement on the trip to Notre Dame, it was a long and time-consuming effort to make it a reality.
Working out the details
In order to have their chosen day off to be a success, Bottinger and his students needed two things: permission and money. Luckily for them, neither was too much trouble.
After Bottinger's class won the trip it immediately applied to the school's Board of Education for permission. Penman, who organized the drive, was also responsible for organizing the execution of the prize.
"Tara did all the legal paperwork for Board approval," Bottinger said. "It took a long time and she did a great job."
Bottinger also spent countless hours on the phone with people at the University, setting up tours, arranging for accommodations and finalizing the plans.
With the paperwork done and the trip approved, only one thing stood in the way: money. The original prize of a single day off didn't include a trip midway across the country or a weekend adventure. Extra money — and some serious fundraising — was a necessity. But before the class could even think about raising money for its trip, the organizers of the clothing drive needed to raise enough funds to ship all the clothes to Senegal. And because the drive had been such a success that sum topped out at about $2,000.
That daunting figure plus the weekend's cost of transportation, lodging, food and other basics didn't prove to be hard to come by, however.
"Through Mr. Bottinger's efforts we got the whole trip donated," Penman said.
Bottinger spread the word about the possibility of the trip and the donations came in.
Among the biggest donors were the Downtown Athletic Club of New York,the group that awards the Heisman Trophy, which gave $1,500 and the Southern New Jersey Alumni Club which gave $500.
"When I mentioned it to the Heisman people, there was no question," Bottinger said. "First they said they'd give us $1,000 and then in turned into $1,500. Raising the money no problem. We knew if we got the right people we could get the money."
Not all the donations were large, though.
"My wife's uncle handed me $100 as I walked out the door Thursday. He told me to treat the kids," Bottinger said. "People were excited about this trip."
With the approval in, the money raised and the plans finalized, there was nothing left to do but enjoy the weekend.
Hitting the road
When Panarello finally finished his 100-meter dash and raced on to the bus, Bottinger, along with fellow health teacher Alicia Scelso, 25 students and a bus driver, took off from Mays Landing, N.J. at 4 p.m. Thursday for an all-night drive.
Armed with classic Irish videos, the class spent 13 hours on the bus en route to Notre Dame.
With a jam-packed schedule that left little time for sleep, the excitement began when the students arrived Friday morning.
After dropping their bags at the University's Sacred Heart Parish and resting for only a little while, the class took a campus tour and met with the Office of Admissions. Skipping a scheduled lunch at South Dining Hall for a nap, the class rested up for a long afternoon of football past and present.
When Bottinger's students met with Irish football players and New Jersey natives Matt LoVecchio and Terrance Howard, the questions began to fly. And nothing was left unasked.
"What did you get on your SATs?"
"Are you going to finish your education or will you go to the NFL early?"
"Where are the parties tonight?"
What was answered, however, was a different story.
After meeting the players, the class took a tour of the locker room and Stadium.
Singing the fight song and snapping pictures, teacher and students alike were awed by the tour.
"Goosebumps, baby, goosebumps," Bottinger said.
After taking a glimpse of football's present, the class took a look at football's past at the College Football Hall of Fame before attending South Bend's ceremony for the women's basketball team at Gridiron Plaza.
On Saturday, the class took in the atmosphere of a game-day on campus and then attended the Blue-Gold game, before immediately boarding the bus for the long ride home.
Despite the fun and excitement surrounding the trip, the students did not forget what brought them to Notre Dame in the first place.
"We're really excited — it's such a great experience," Penman said. "It's perfect. It gives us a great feeling to help someone and we get to do something fun too."
All News Stories for Monday, April 30, 2001