Jamal Feaster called out to DeShone Kizer hoping to get the quarterback’s attention during last Friday’s pep rally. The fourth grader had travelled from Stockton, Calif., with the rest of his class at Taylor Leadership Academy, all 30 of them, for this moment. And he got it.
Kizer heard Feaster and offered a high-five.
“He’s my favorite player,” Feaster said. “He throws good touchdown passes.”
Feaster said he’d never wash that hand again, although his teacher Allison Silva assured everyone that by Saturday, after meeting President Rev. John Jenkins and forming the tunnel for Notre Dame to take the field before Duke, basic hygiene standards had been met.
Feaster’s instinct to preserve that personal contact revealed this audacious field trip for what it was, an unforgettable memory and a lifetime compass. For both the fourth graders and the University they touched, the weekend spoke to Notre Dame’s past and its potential.
Silva’s class adopted Notre Dame three years ago – her brother is a graduate – as part of Taylor Leadership Academy’s push to make college real for kids who may see it as fantasy. Twenty-nine of Silva’s students would represent the first college graduate in their families. The 30th has a parent who earned a diploma only recently.
When Silva wants to get her students’ attention, she says “Fighting” and the kids repeat back “Irish.” They have Notre Dame banners and posters in their room. A grandmother knitted the kids Notre Dame scarves, shipped via an alumni club. They call themselves the Class of 2029. They’ve already worked on application essays.
On Friday night at the pep rally, one fourth grader got the shirt off Josh Adams’ back. Another drew a picture of Brian Kelly that the coach autographed. One kid asked for a selfie with Jenkins on Saturday. They all met Rudy.
Getting here started with a 4 a.m. Thursday bus from school to the Sacramento airport. The class flew Delta to Minneapolis and on to Chicago, then bussed to Notre Dame. When the bus pulled up to the circle in front of the Golden Dome, the class sang the “Victory March” and “Here Come The Irish.” They know all the words.
Then Silva turned them loose and the kids sprinted toward the Dome, arms stretched so wide they looked ready to hug it.
“When do you get somewhere you’ve never been and you get off the bus and run open arms at something you’ve been dreaming of seeing?” Silva said. “That’s a testament to Notre Dame and the community. They feel home.”
The next morning they saw the football locker room and hung out with Malik Zaire, Jerry Tillery and Torii Hunter Jr. They went through first-year studies programs that afternoon before front row seats at the pep rally that evening. Then they watched men’s soccer score a game-winning goal in the final minute to beat Syracuse.
Game day would be next.
Yet how this itinerary got set is as good a story as the schedule itself.
It started with Father Ted Hesburgh because everything around Notre Dame does.
During the North Carolina game weekend two years ago, Don Smail returned to campus as president of the San Joaquin Valley alumni club. He met with Hesburgh, who challenged alumni clubs to reach out to Muslim leaders in their communities to build a bridge between faiths.
“He saw it as the civil rights issue of our time,” Smail said. “But I really didn’t know what to do. He said, ‘Just do it.’”
Smail returned home to Stockton and connected with Mohammad El Farra, a local imam. He invited El Farra to speak to the Notre Dame club. A year later Smail learned about the Taylor Leadership Academy class and ultimately linked Silva with El Farra, who’s also a children’s dentist.
When planning began for Silva’s class to make this trip, El Farra, a double graduate of USC, was curious about the logistics. Moving, feeding and sleeping 30 fourth graders proved to be a predictable challenge. El Farra’s help was less expected when his Muslim center wrote a check to pay for 30 sleeping bags.
Silva’s class donated them to the South Bend Center for the Homeless on Sunday.
“One thing after another, people wanted to help,” Smail said.
Delta donated 36 round trip tickets, also covering six chaperones. Notre Dame’s athletic department provided the game tickets. University Relations raised about $10,000 to cover other costs. Pat Flynn, a 1978 classmate of Smail, offered his house for the kids to sleep in after a local church fell through. Smail bought Notre Dame pillowcases for the kids.
Notre Dame contracted a film crew to document the whole experience, with Fighting Irish Media in part responsible for sparking this trip in the first place. A year earlier Notre Dame flew Silva to South Bend for the Wake Forest game and she Skyped her class with Zaire. Notre Dame filmed that experience, which was so compelling a donor paid to send the class to Notre Dame’s regular-season finale at Stanford a week later.
After seeing that Stanford video, Notre Dame Law graduate Patrick Donahue ‘75 wanted to get the class to South Bend. He just had no idea how to do it. Then he wrote Silva.
“If you’re a Notre Dame fan it makes a big difference,” Donahue said. “You gotta go to Notre Dame, experience the campus.”
Donahue reached out to Notre Dame last spring and eventually connected with senior associate athletics director Dan Skendzel, who began to pull parties together. By mid-summer the trip appeared close to a green light. They chose a September game because it wasn’t clear if all the students had winter coats.
Ultimately Skendzel helped tie together Donahue’s interest, Smail’s connections, the athletic department, University Relations, Notre Dame Sports Properties and the alumni network. Then he got to welcome Silva’s class to campus.
“When I walked onto that bus Thursday, some kids were literally crying,” Skendzel said. “It’s hard not to get emotional yourself. And their version of the Victory March was flawless.”
Based on the campus landmarks Silva’s class hit, they may not remember the final score of Notre Dame’s loss to Duke. They saw the usual stuff, the grotto, Basilica and Golden Dome. They also walked the lakes in search of “The Rudy bench” in front of Moreau Seminary.
“I asked them what makes that bench so special because I didn’t know,” Smail said. “They said that’s where Rudy found out he got into Notre Dame. They’re already imagining where they’ll be when they get their letter.”
“Watching ‘Rudy,’ that’s their favorite moment,” Silva said. “He gets into school. It’s not the football stuff.”
Silva never minded her class connecting with the football program as long as it fell in love with the education more. For math units Silva will work backward from Notre Dame, the kids figuring out how long it would take to drive from Stockton to South Bend and comparing that against the school’s academic calendar. They don’t want to miss their first day of classes in 2025.
They already wrote Barack Obama to request he speak at their commencement.
“And he wrote back,” Smail said. “Signed photograph, everything.
“It’s heartwarming and remarkable to see the hopes and dreams of these kids be sparked by the Notre Dame spirit.”
It’s impossible to know where Silva’s class will go after its dream weekend in South Bend other than back to California. Smail wants his alumni group to help mentor the students, supporting the movement Silva started.
As for getting 30 fourth graders to know college when it wouldn’t be part of their day-to-day otherwise, that job is done. That Brian Kelly autograph, Josh Adams t-shirt and DeShone Kizer high-five only nurtured seeds already planted.
“We started this so they could dream bigger than what they see in their surroundings,” Silva said. “I wanted to connect them with the possibilities that are out there. I always tell them ‘dream big’ and they answer ‘work hard!’
“I want them to know there’s nothing out of their reach.”