SOUTH BEND — Megan McLaughlin grew up with two parents who were coaches, and sports analogies were often the way life lessons were taught, she said.
So participating as a mentor in a pilot program that uses basketball to teach kids leadership skills was a natural fit for the University of Notre Dame sophomore and soccer player.
The Saturday morning program called Pass it On started on Jan. 27 and wrapped up this weekend. It brought together more than 20 off-season Notre Dame student athlete volunteers and more than 30 third- and fourth-graders at Perley Primary Fine Arts Academy.
Kids learned about having a positive attitude, recognizing individual talents and encouraging good work while also learning skills like dribbling, passing and shooting.
"The kids have been awesome," McLaughlin said. "They are so passionate about the game. They're always excited to be here."
Youngsters divided into teams with several student athletes per group to serve as coaches. Each session, kids and coaches met for "chalk talks" to explore different lessons. One week, the focus was on the individual role each team member plays. Another week, kids learned about enjoying the process of improving their skills. There was a new lesson each time, first to talk about and then to put into motion with basketballs at different skills stations.
The kids also were given T-shirts, water bottles, healthy snacks and a "passport" book to track their lessons that the student athletes signed.
Perley Principal Joe Somers said the number of student athletes involved meant the kids got a lot of individual attention, which they ate up.
"They're fully engaged," said Somers, looking around the noisy gym on Saturday. "No one's sitting on the side or left out. It's truly a team spirit. It's what our Notre Dame athletes bring to the table."
Beth Ernsberger said her third-grade daughter, Natalie, enjoyed partnering with a student athlete also named Natalie — Natalie Johnson, a senior volleyball player.
"It's been wonderful to see the kids grow their skills. You can see the difference from the first class to now," Ernsberger said. "And seeing how the Notre Dame students interact — they're really engaging the kids."
Ernsberger points to 8-year-old Natalie's dribbling abilities, which she said have improved. Natalie said she'll remember what she learned about dribbling and shooting, plus some of the larger lessons, too, like "how to support your teammates."
What the kids learn about leading and working with others is discussed in the classroom, said Somers.
"I can see their leadership abilities emerge, and pockets of success," he said.
Notre Dame students regularly volunteer at Perley, so when the university proposed the Pass it On pilot, Somers said he was "all on board."
Pass it On was developed by Notre Dame's Student Welfare and Development Department as a way for student athletes to share with area youngsters the leadership skills they themselves have been learning, according to the department's program coordinator, Katie McLean.
The department hopes to take Pass it On to more South Bend grade schools next year.
Somers said he'd recommend it.
McLaughlin said she'd be back to volunteer again "for sure" if the program continues.
Sean Dedrick, a Notre Dame junior and soccer player, said he would, too. He likes the idea of using sports to communicate concepts that he thinks the kids will always use, and he liked seeing how the program evolved over the past several weeks.
"Everyone's tentative at first, then everyone opens up and you develop these relationships," Dedrick said. "It gives you an optimistic lens."