When disaster struck, Thomas Notarainni, just 8 years old at the time, grabbed a handful of nails and started hammering in drywall.
Notarainni, now part of a San Diego sports powerhouse family, lived in Houston when Hurricane Ike ravaged the city in 2008, causing massive property damage. The hurricane flooded the home of neighbors his family was friends with. So even at such a young age, he and his parents and two siblings helped them rebuild.
The Notarainnis are known as a sports family in local circles for good reason. Thomas and his younger brother Marco Notarainni are standouts in basketball and football, playing at Cathedral Catholic and Torrey Pines, respectively. Their older sister Bianca Notarainni is a former La Jolla Country Day basketball standout who now plays at NYU.
Thomas is a junior shooting guard for the Dons, and Marco is a junior linebacker for the Falcons who also plays on the lacrosse team. Both are coveted collegiate prospects.
Bianca played on LJCD’s state championship team when she was a freshman.
But these intensely competitive athletes have been carving out time to help others since they were practically toddlers.
Bianca cited the influence of her parents, Mark and Romina Notarainni, for encouraging her and her siblings to make community service a priority in their already busy lives.
“It’s not something that came out of the blue for my family,” Bianca said. “My mom is from Argentina and my dad moved around all over the world, so they definitely know different countries and they know different lifestyles, from whether it was not in the best situation or where we are today. That’s something that we really do appreciate in life and we do want to give that back to the community.
“Both my parents, they’re two of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and I’m very thankful they raised me and my brothers the way they have.”
The Notarainnis moved to San Diego from Houston about 10 years ago, shortly after Hurricane Ike. They started doing community service when they were members of a church in Houston affiliated with a group that helped children with special needs.
“It was just kind of an introduction to me to kind of help kids,” Bianca said. “It was really cool to see how relationships were formed. We would come every Saturday and Sunday and those special needs kids would recognize you and they would be very happy to see you.”
The Notarainnis open their home each Thanksgiving to Marines stationed in the area who are away from their families. Each Christmas they adopt a family and give gifts to those in need through Samaritan Purse, and as a family they’ve prepared and distributed food to San Diego’s homeless through Burrito Boyz.
Thomas and Marco participate in Teen Volunteers in Action (TVIA), a community service organization that partners with groups including Burrito Boyz and Miracle League, a group that provides athletic opportunities for children with special needs.
“I always love working with the kids and the special needs kids, so Miracle League is my favorite event,” Marco said. “Community service is an important opportunity for me to stay grounded and humble. Knowing how grateful I am to be blessed with a lot of opportunities helps me become a better person.”
Shortly after her family moved to San Diego, Bianca continued her charitable work at LJCD, where community service is heavily emphasized.
“Only 40 hours were required to graduate but I ended up doing over 100 and I know a bunch of my friends were the same way,” she said.
Bianca spent a week in the Dominican Republic teaching English through a LJCD program.
“It was a very special and very moving experience,” she said. “It was definitely one of my favorite trips that I’ve actually ever done in any aspect whether it was fun or work.”
Thomas recalls helping rebuild the damaged home in Houston to be a fulfilling experience.
“Their appreciation was really heart-warming,” Thomas said. “I thought it was really cool to see.”
Bianca, still in grade school at the time as well, joined her brother in hammering in drywall. Marco, who is two years younger than Thomas, helped out too.
“It just felt like I was part of something that was bigger than myself,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he’d like to see more people participate in community service in some form. He believes many don’t realize how much they’d get out of the experience.
“I think it is something that benefits the other people that you’re helping, but most people would be very surprised how much it helps themselves,” he said.