RALEIGH, N.C. – As Meredith College says goodbye to its Class of 2013, one proud member of the class is just beginning to make her mark upon the world.
Former volleyball standout Mary Beth Finegan '13, who officially graduated in May after completing her eligibility in 2011, is putting her degree in communications to great use by working with Teachers for Africa Foundation, an organization dedicated to the cause of better education in the townships of South Africa.
Finegan, a Chapel Hill native, began her work with the organization in February.
"The opportunity Mary Beth has been given in South Africa seems as if it were handcrafted specifically for her," said Fiona Barkley, Avenging Angels head volleyball coach.
Finegan began her journey with Project SMASH, a unique program using volleyball as a vehicle to teach and develop social skills like perseverance, team spirit, handling disappointment, patience and sense of responsibility for youth, in the Hout Bay and Cape Town areas.
Volunteers also teach local individuals to train and coach in order to sustain the program after the volunteers move on to their next mission. The athletes live in severe poverty, some without running water and electricity or even shoes, and "are in desperate need of something to keep them engaged and happy in life," Finegan said. "Volleyball is not just a sport to them; it is a means of comfort. At the end of the day, if I can make the children smile, I have accomplished a lot."
After three months with SMASH, Finegan moved on to Project Social Work. She is dedicating three months at one township under the guidance of a local social worker to tackle some of the toughest topics facing those living in poverty.
Finegan is supporting local social initiatives such as HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, anger management therapy, child art/play therapy, female empowerment groups, and violence awareness and prevention. Community members live in a world of violence and poverty, and Project Social Work efforts attempt to develop assertiveness and defensibility in the development of self-confidence.
"I first heard about Project SMASH while doing research online," Finegan said. "I stumbled upon the website and as soon as I read the words 'coaching volleyball,' I was hooked."
With a longtime goal of traveling to Africa to work with underprivileged children and families and an aunt connected to Operation Hope in New York City, Finegan found Teachers for Africa an ideal fit for her first step beyond Meredith.
As part of her undergraduate career, she completed an internship in New York working with at-risk youth and is using this next experience in South Africa to broaden her awareness of social issues. Finegan plans to pair her hands-on experience with graduate study in order to more capably influence children who battle these same social crises in the United States.
"I hope to at least make a difference in one individual's life. That is my goal," Finegan said. "You cannot change the world 500 children at a time. That is an unrealistic goal, and that is how you get frustrated with your work. But if you make a difference in one, maybe two children's lives, you have created a path towards changing the world, and that is how I believe you do it. I want to listen and learn about these children and the families. I want to hear their stories."
A four-year letter winner who earned USA South Athletic Conference Libero of the Year accolades in 2008, Finegan hopes to utilize her playing and coaching experience to complement her future plans. She plans to use the strong work ethic, perseverance and determination learned on the Weatherspoon Gym court to inspire others who face extreme deprivation, hardship and adversity.
"Mary Beth was an amazing athlete and record setting defensive player while at Meredith," Barkley said. "Her skills on the court were strong, but it was her heart for the game that has truly made her mark in the volleyball world. "[She] loves to compete and loves to win. … But even more then that she loves her teammates and the people around the game. And she especially loves teaching volleyball to the next generation of players."
Finegan began her coaching career with Triangle Volleyball Club in 2004 as a student apprentice coach before moving on to coach the 12 Black team for three consecutive seasons. In 2012, she helped this team to a regional championship and a top-20 finish at the national qualifier in Atlanta. In addition, Finegan earned significant court time with Triangle's Youth Volleyball Program and served as the head junior varsity coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School.
"Coaching gave me extensive experience working with children and families," Finegan said. "I learned the body language, the tone of voice, everything when it comes to working with children. I learned what kids respond to in terms of motivational tactics, along with how to understand individuals and making unique connections with them."
After a decade-long absence, she restarted a Special Olympics volleyball team in Wake County, which when combined with club volleyball coaching, gave Finegan a gauge for youth success. "Everybody has a different measure of success," she said. "Some athletes are incredibly talented, while others require more work, yet everyone has a full potential."
Full potential sounds like exactly what Finegan has realized with her Meredith education.
Check back for updates on Finegan's journey.