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: Relationship, not sacrifice is at the heart of Lent

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When we began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Lord said to us, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13).

During Lent we strive to unite ourselves with Jesus’ experience of conquering temptation in the desert and pursuing the Father’s will, so that we can fully experience the joy and victory of Easter. The Scriptures and Fathers of the Church consistently recommend three forms of penance that help us on this journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But before we can fruitfully carry out these forms of purification, we must rend our hearts. In the Jewish tradition, ripping one’s garments – known as keriah – is done when mourning a relative who has passed away. Today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts if the deceased is one of their parents. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died.

Even more important than this outward expression of grief is returning to God with our whole heart, tearing it away from any unhealthy desires and attachments. In his 2018 message for Lent, Pope Francis offers some insights into the ways people develop unhealthy attachments today by reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus warns, “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).

The Holy Father echoes Jesus’ warning that there will be many false prophets who lead people astray. One kind of false prophet, which he calls snake charmers, are those “who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others … with momentary pleasures” like dreams of wealth or the belief that they are self-sufficient and don’t need others. Pope Francis also alerts us to “charlatans” – people who offer “easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless.” Their traps include drugs, disposable relationships and the temptation of a “thoroughly ‘virtual’ existence, in which relationships appear quick and straightforward, only to prove meaningless!”

But despite these snares laid by the Devil and his false prophets, God the Father declares through the Prophet Joel that he is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). God’s mercy and love for us can transform our hearts, if we are willing to open them to him and deepen our relationship, especially through the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

When it comes to prayer, pursuing a deeper relationship with God means going beyond our first inclination, which is to make ourselves the focus of our prayer and to even boast of our accomplishments. Instead, we should ask God to help us know him better, to experience a greater intimacy with each person of the Trinity. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, calls this kind of prayer “mental prayer.” “In my opinion,” she said, “mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

If we pray in this way, then our fasting and almsgiving will naturally flow from us as acts of love for Christ in others, rather than being a set of tasks or Lenten requirements to fulfill. Our hearts will be rent, and not merely our garments.

Fasting is another way for us to draw closer to God. Saint Augustine observed this when he wrote, “Fasting purifies the soul. It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit. It makes the heart contrite and humble, (and) scatters the clouds of desire … .” By denying our appetites and giving up distractions, we can more clearly hear God’s voice and place ourselves at his service.

The final practice of Lent that conforms our hearts more to Jesus’ Sacred Heart is almsgiving. Pope Francis notes in his Lenten message that almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

This other-centered approach will help us to draw closer to the heart of Christ, particularly if we follow the advice of Saint Mother Teresa. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” she was known to say.

As we seek to rend our hearts this Lent in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter, let us remember that God desires to draw each of us closer to him. He is waiting for us to seek him out so that he can pour out his mercy, love and kindness upon us.