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 email@example.com.
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
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