St. Sebastian keeps ball rollin’ for school sports

Julie Filby

Jeff Stemper, 50, grew up in Aurora playing sports. He loved being part of his schools’ football, basketball and baseball teams, and sees how they helped form who he is today.

“Sports were a great experience for me,” said the husband and father of two young adults. “I learned to co-exist; I took pride in being part of a team.”

When it came to his attention that some students in Archdiocese of Denver Catholic schools were unable to participate in school sports for financial reasons, he sprang into action and launched the St. Sebastian Project Denver (SSPD).

Named for the patron saint of sports, the St. Sebastian Project is a nonprofit that provides funds to economically challenged Denver-area Catholic elementary/middle schools to support their athletic programs. Since 2011 they have provided uniforms, equipment, athletic fees and countless basketballs, volleyballs and soccer balls.

“There are kids that don’t have the opportunity to play (and) that doesn’t seem fair,” said Stemper, SSPD executive director. “We want kids to have the opportunity to be able to play and take pride in their school by playing on an organized team.”

Tim Root, a parishioner of Most Precious Blood Church, was serving as an SSPD liaison for two schools, Assumption and Blessed Sacrament, when another school, St. Therese in Aurora, indicated they were looking for a boys’ basketball coach. Root, along with his son Nathan, a senior at Regis Jesuit High School, began coaching the middle-school athletes last season.

“(The experience) taught them teamwork, responsibility and working together for a common goal,” Root said.

It created a tight bond between the boys, which included a total of eight sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

“Some of these boys never really experienced each other outside the classroom,” he said of team members that included students from African-American, Hispanic and Laotian communities.”So it also taught communication skills, (they learned) they’ve got to communicate and work together as a team.”

Those skills translate to other areas as well.

“Playing sports builds confidence,” Root continued. “That kid that makes one basket, all season—he carries that with him and he’s on Cloud Nine for two weeks.

“Then it helps him later in class projects,” he continued. “Or anything team related.”

For some, the experience also helped bring their academics up to speed.

“They told me ‘they’re pretty good ball players,’” Root said reflecting on the team’s early stages. “But they have to stay (academically) eligible to be able to play.”

They worked to make sure that happened. Nathan, along with seventh- and eighth-grade St. Therese student-mentors, tutored team members and assisted them with their homework before practices.

“I give them a lot of credit for keeping going,” Root said.

In the end, the team went on to win third place in a competitive Catholic Schools Athletic League Varsity Division 3.

“They were so excited to bring home hardware,” Root said.

St. Sebastian’s has provided St. Therese with about $3,000 for new basketball uniforms, athletic fee scholarships for some 36 students annually, as well as a heavy-duty basketball goal for the playground that’s available to everyone in the school and neighborhood.

“That was an amazing gift,” said Norma Araiza, athletic director. “And of course the kids love it.”

Each year the project gains more momentum, according to Stemper.

In addition to the nine schools they’re currently working with—
Annunciation, Assumption, Blessed Sacrament, Presentation of Our Lady, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. Louis in Englewood, St. Rose of Lima and St. Therese—they would like to add more.

“We started this because we didn’t see anyone dedicated to this niche,” he said. “We’re not familiar with any other program similar to ours that supports these schools’ athletic programs.”

The St. Sebastian Project continues to grow through the generosity of donors at an annual fundraiser. This year’s fundraiser will be held 6:30 p.m. June 21 at Green Oaks Pool at 5898 Green Oaks Drive in Greenwood Village. For a suggested donation of $75 per couple, plus a ball, guests will be treated to a Mexican dinner and margaritas. For more information or to RSVP, visit www.saintsebastiandenver.org or email info@saintsebastiandenver.org.

When: 6:30 p.m. June 21
Where: Green Oaks Pool, 5898 Green Oaks Drive, Greenwood Village
Suggested donation: $75 per couple, plus a ball
RSVP: www.saintsebastiandenver.org
Questions: info@saintsebastiandenver.org

By the Numbers
They shoot, they score St. Sebastian Project Denver

Schools involved: 9
Combined students enrollment: 1,740
Students supported by St. Sebastian’s: 428

COMING UP: Run, Betty run!

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Run, Betty run!

Even at 89, Betty Willis just keeps on running

Roxanne King

Twenty years ago, the Denver Catholic Register (now the Denver Catholic) featured a local 70-year-old who had recently run her 23rd marathon.

Betty Willis went on to finish four more marathons as well as numerous half-marathons, 10K and 5K runs. Set to turn 90 on Oct. 23, she plans to run a 5K on Oct. 7 to benefit her parish’s school, Sts. Peter and Paul in Wheat Ridge.

“I ran in it last year,” Willis said about Sts. Peter and Paul’s Cool Duo race. Laughing she added, “I was 89 and I got first place in the 80 and older group—there wasn’t anyone else in my age group!”

That’s how it’s been since she started running in 1979 at age 52 when she competed in a 10K.

“I had never done a race before in my life,” Willis said. “I walked and ran and walked and ran. I finished next to last.

“Actually, I came in second place in my age group—50 and over,” she clarified. “There were only two of us.”

Two years later—after training—she participated in her first 26-mile marathon, placing first in her age group. She went on to compete in a total 27 marathons.

“I did 27 to honor my birth year, 1927,” Willis explained.

Her best marathon time? An impressive 3 hours, 55 minutes in 1985, which according to wellness website VeryWell, is 50 minutes less than the median marathon time for women of 4 hours, 45 minutes.

Her most memorable race? The Oct. 28, 2001, Marine Corps Marathon, which took place in Washington, D.C., just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was dedicated to those who died, the survivors and the first responders. Runners carried flags as they ran by the damaged Pentagon.

Betty Willis, 89, shows just a few of the medals shes’s acquired in her many years as a runner. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“That was the most patriotism I’d seen since World War II,” Willis recalled. “It was my favorite marathon.”

Born and reared in Springfield, Ill., Willis came to Denver in 1949 with just a small cardboard suitcase. She was 21 and on her way to San Francisco but needed to earn some money. She ended up finding a 39-year career with Security Life insurance. Starting as a file clerk, evenings she attended college and earned a degree in education and psychology. She retired from Security Life as an assistant vice president in 1988.

“I’ve had a very full life,” she said. “Lot’s of interesting things have happened!”

After retiring, Willis earned a master’s degree in Christian community development. She also completed the Catholic Biblical School’s four-year program. For 23 years, she directed the homebound ministry at Sts. Peter and Paul, where she’s been a 65-year parishioner.

Today, she still serves as a back-up extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and opens the door for the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass, which is convenient as she lives across the street from the church.

“Jesus has been my best friend for my whole life,” she said of her faith. “I’ve got through with help from the Lord, the Good Shepherd, who sent me good shepherds.”

A daily communicant for “many, many, many years,” Willis said simply of her dedicated Mass attendance: “You have to be close to the Lord. You have a reason to get up and get going, not just sit around.”

The same goes for her running habit.

When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits.”

“It’s good for your health—mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said. “It keeps you agile and it’s a lot of fun. I run for all those reasons, and for the camaraderie with other runners.”

The benefits of running include slowing peripheral artery disease, which she was diagnosed with five years ago. She likes that runs benefit charitable causes and believes running has given her “bonus years.”

“I enjoy the challenge and just doing it,” Willis said. “I would really like to encourage older people to get off their duff and not shuffle their feet … to keep moving! They’ll be stronger and happier.”

These days, Willis limits herself to 5K races.

“When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits,” she said.

Willis is looking forward to Sts. Peter and Paul’s 5k as last year some of the school’s teaching nuns ran in full habits, and the pastor and many students participated. The same is planned for this year, which she praised.

“I especially want to congratulate all the children who will run,” she said.

Twenty years ago Willis expressed a desire to travel, to write and maybe finally move to San Francisco. Running has allowed her to make trips there, and to Alaska, Hawaii and Ireland. Currently she’s working on freeing up time to write.

And some days, the dream of moving to San Francisco, where she lived a year as a teen, beckons.

“I loved the ocean,” Willis said. “But it might be to Los Angeles because my parents are buried there and my brother (her sole living sibling out of four) lives there.

“I still have my one little cardboard suitcase I brought with me,” she said. “I still might continue that journey to California.”

STS. PETER & PAUL COOL DUO 5K
Benefits Sts. Peter and Paul School in Wheat Ridge
Sunday, Oct. 1, 8:30 a.m.
Info: www.coolduo5k.com