The Very First "Yes"
Steve Camilleri (ACE 1 - Hammond) Honored with 2018 Founders Prize
"It was after the Easter vigil. Saturday, almost midnight.
“I slipped my acceptance, that I wanted to do the program, under Fr. Scully’s door. Little did I know that the door would open. They were having an Easter celebration! It was kinda like this: ‘Oh my God! The program’s going to happen! We have someone!’ It was a really special time. It was an exciting time. It felt like the exact right thing to do,” says Steve Camilleri. There he was. ACE 1. Acceptance one.
Steve’s was the very first “yes” ACE received, which joyfully and inextricably links him to ACE’s founding moment. Steve has been using his enthusiasm, faith, and talents to "improvise on providence" ever since, and he is now being honored with the 2018 ACE Founders Prize, which is generously endowed by Scott C. Malpass and presented annually to two ACE graduates whose God-given talents of leadership, innovation, and commitment to service on behalf of the Gospel have shaped their vocations and transformed their communities. Steve received the prize at a dinner on September 13; Jenn Beltramo, the superintendent of the Diocese of San Jose, will receive the prize on October 20.
In the spring of 1994, along with 39 other brave souls in ACE’s first cohort, Steve embarked on a journey of service. “It was an amazing group. I feel like I represent 40 people. We were so solid and so together in this experience,” says Steve. A young man from New York, Steve was placed in Hammond, Louisiana, where he taught fifth- and sixth-grade religion and English at Holy Ghost Catholic Grade School.
“If there’s ever been a piece of heaven, it is Hammond, Louisiana. The people are so wonderfully hospitable and embracing,” Steve says. “Look, I’ve lived in New York 18 years of my life, I’ve lived in South Bend for 26 and I only lived in Hammond, Louisiana for two, and I feel just as much a native Louisianan as I am a New Yorker, as I am a Hoosier.”
The students, teachers, and community in Louisiana helped form–and transform–Steve, so when he heard the Holy Spirit calling him back to Notre Dame to share those feelings of love and acceptance, he listened. “Being open to providence. That’s the Holy Spirit and how it moves in your life,” Steve says.
He began building bridges and relationships throughout the University and the larger community working in development, special events, and as ministries director at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. While pursuing his Master of Nonprofit Administration from Notre Dame, he used his infectious energy and entrepreneurial spirit to help launch the highly successful ND Vision program. As the founding director, Steve helped high school students from around the country come to Notre Dame and explore their vocations in whatever form they may take. Steve says, “We had Notre Dame undergraduates lead it. They would be mentors in faith or music mentors. We had about a thousand that first year, and now they have had 20,000 students since its inception.”
Steve is foremost a servant leader, and in August 2004, his talents were tapped to serve the wider South Bend community as the executive director of the South Bend Center for the Homeless. Steve says, “We aspire to be a transformational facility. I inherited a strong foundation. I must lean on the leaders who came before me and give them full credit. And it’s the staff, this community, what Notre Dame has done for us, the volunteers . . . that’s who we are.”
Steve’s experience building relationships–including as a teacher and a member of the Notre Dame community–has helped him at the Center for the Homeless. “When someone comes in to the Center for the Homeless being profoundly disconnected, the way you heal that is through relationships,” he says. “I’m just one part of that relationship.”
Steve’s commitment, vision, and collaborative spirit have been an example of successful and compassionate outreach services. Steve credits his parents for showing him what it looked like to welcome and love people regardless of their circumstances. “What I knew very acutely about my parents was just how accepting they were of people from all walks of life,” he says.
Steve likens his work in ACE to his current role at the Center for the Homeless. He understood his students often weren’t bad kids, they might’ve just been in tough situations and he believes similarly about his guests at the Center in that many are people who’ve also been in tough situations and they need some help, guidance, and support. Steve says, “We all struggle, but we’re all God’s children and deserving of His love.”
Steve is a pillar in the community, perhaps the most vocal supporter of the ACE program, and someone who’s left a lasting impact on those he’s served. This past Father’s Day, he received a text from one of his former students in Louisiana. She wanted to thank him and make sure he understood now what he might have only suspected then. Twenty-five years earlier her family life was in turmoil. Steve’s kindness and positive energy gave her a safe and stable environment to learn in . . . and lean on. Two and a half decades later, she still feels the effects of that. She is a teacher now too, and every day she aspires to leave that positivity with her students just as Steve had done for her and so many others.
Steve will be the first to say he was one of 40 in that very first cohort, and he believes that this award could easily go to any of the members of ACE 1 who embarked on this journey of hope for the children, schools, and future of Catholic education. He says, “I'd much prefer the story be about the students I learned from in ACE, the guests at the Center for the Homeless, and all the wonderful people I met through ACE.”
Twenty-five years ago, Steve believed in ACE’s ability to renew and transform Catholic schools, and he said “yes” to the invitation to join the mission. “Certainly, that first year, it was about all of us responding to that call, and responding to the Holy Spirit and moving in the way the Spirit moves us. I still feel like I’m doing that today.”