By Adam Pruiett, Bellarmine University Staff Report
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On the tennis court, Bellarmine University’s Mairin Cotter played like a machine last season as a freshman, systematically defeating every opponent that stood in her way en route to a 17-0 record in singles play.
Over the summer, though, Cotter showed just how human she truly is.
Cotter spent five weeks in Tangier, Morocco, working with underprivileged children through World Unite!, an organization that provides intercultural exchange and global learning opportunities through avenues such as internships and volunteering assignments. Her interest in the trip was two-fold.
“I have always wanted to volunteer with children in a third-world country and I also wanted to improve my French,” she said, “so this was the best place to do it.”
Cotter worked at a home for orphaned and abandoned children called La Crèche De Tanger, which is located within the town’s Kortobi Hospital. The Knights’ sophomore noted that “often parents in Morocco are unable to care for their kids, so they will leave them in the streets, knowing that the police will send them to homes like La Crèche. Some kids are also there because they were born out of wedlock, since that is illegal in Morocco.”
Many of the children were stricken with genetic, mental and/or physical disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and dwarfism. One boy was blind, deaf and paralyzed. The autistic children at La Crèche were unable to form words and did not interact with the other kids.
“However, there was one autistic child who loved to go on walks and would hold your hand and make excited noises the whole time,” said Cotter, who earned the Bellarmine Scholars scholarship, the most prestigious academic scholarship awarded by the institution.
Cotter, a native of Easley, South Carolina, pointed out that even the children without disabilities faced their share of hardships. Most grew up without a parent, she said, and were starved for attention.
“There was one boy who would always ask me to help with his homework even though he never had homework — he just wanted one-on-one attention,” Cotter said.
The experience was an immersive one. During her time in Morocco, Cotter roomed with an American girl and three females of German heritage in an apartment, but its primary function was that of a place to sleep. In the mornings at La Crèche, Cotter spent time with the toddlers and special needs children, playing with them and taking them on neighborhood walks. In the afternoons, she took French lessons before returning to the orphanage to work with the older children on their homework, reading English to them and helping them with French grammar. She then helped feed the younger children and put them to bed.
For Cotter, the trip was invaluable on many levels. From a career standpoint, it provided the kind of blunt, ground-level experience that she knew would provide clarity about the career path she was taking. The end result might have been a desire to go in a different direction. Thankfully, the illuminating trip only reinforced her choice of pursuits.
“I am a psychology major, but I am also pre-med, so I wanted to work with kids and specifically kids with mental disabilities,” she said. “This experience helped tremendously with both psychology and pre-med, as I mainly worked with mentally and physically handicapped kids. It was interesting to see how mental disabilities were viewed and dealt with in a third-world country, as it was very different than in the United States. (For example) the autistic kids were disciplined as if they weren’t autistic, and they never understood why they were being punished.”
In addition to being a practical experience, it was also a very personal one.
“It was life changing,” Cotter said. “I never thought about how different the kids would act in just a day-to-day basis because they didn’t have parents. I realized that not having parents affects personality so much. These kids were so sweet, but they wanted attention so badly because they never got one-on-one attention. I grew especially attached to a 2 year old who was a dwarf. By the end of the five weeks, she would cry if I didn’t pick her up as soon as I entered the orphanage.”
Cotter brought the same devotion and drive to the Bellarmine women’s tennis team last season while setting a program record for winning streak.
“I really didn’t realize I was getting such a tenacious competitor when I offered her a walk-on spot last year,” BU Coach John Mican said. “She comes to the court with an infectious, positive attitude every practice.”
A second semester of studies and the bulk of the 2015-16 tennis season lie ahead of Cotter. But after that, another career- and life-affirming venture may be on the horizon.
“I am hoping to do something similar next summer,” Cotter said. “As to the future, this trip definitely solidified the fact that I want to work with sick kids with whatever I do after college.”