Four questions for new Seeds of Hope head

Jay Clark brings wealth of successful for- and nonprofit leadership to role

On June 30, Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust got a new executive director.

Jay Clark, 53, who has worked in communications in both for- and nonprofit entities, is now charged with leading the organization dedicated to making Catholic education available to needy children.

Clark’s previous positions include heading media relations for the Denver Nuggets basketball team, working as a founding manager and then as executive director of Gold Crown Foundation youth sports, founding Wolfpack Communications marketing and public relations firm, and serving as executive director of Adams Camp, which aids special needs kids.

At Adams Camp, Clark exceeded fundraising goals and increased donor participation in annual giving. At Wolfpack, he won kudos from Gold Crown founders Ray Baker and former Nuggets great Bill Hanzlik, who were among his clients. While at Gold Crown, Clark oversaw the organization’s two building projects—the Gold Crown Field House and the Coca-Cola All Star Park—which both came in on time and under budget.

Born and reared in Englewood, Colo., Clark earned a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University. He is a convert to Catholicism from Methodism, is married and is the father of two young adult daughters.

He recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about his new role. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

DC: How have your previous positions prepared you for this role?

Clark: I started my career in public relations, which was a great way to learn how to serve people. [First] I was in a position of serving media; then I was the PR guy for the Denver Nuggets. I left to help Bill Hanzlik … expand his [Gold Crown] foundation. [It] was great to learn from the ground up how a nonprofit starts and grows. Being around Bill and his partner Ray Baker, who’s my mentor, you just learn how to treat people with respect. That’s helped to prepare me for Seeds of Hope because it’s all about service: How do we serve the students? How do we serve the donors? Everything in my career has led me to this.

DC: What is your goal for Seeds of Hope?

Clark: The goal is making Catholic education accessible to anybody who wants it. With the expansion that we’re now looking at in the near future [to offer Seeds of Hope aid to needy students attending any of the Denver Archdiocese’s 37 Catholic schools beyond the nine urban schools currently served starting in the 2018-2019 academic year] the ambitions the system has and the archdiocese has, it’s an exciting time to really help make this opportunity accessible to anybody who wants it. It’s exciting and pretty ambitious.

DC: What is your vision for achieving that expansion?

Clark: I’m learning at Mach speed working with the folks at the Catholic Alliance [a consolidation of eight Catholic ministries to share resources]. We’ll come up with a great development plan [that entails] working closely on the events to grow our donor base [and] to getting the message out. This organization has been around a long time and a lot of people know about it, but you can always expand that circle and get more people who share the same kind of vision. Not only are you helping to make [Catholic] education available to anyone who would like it, but the bigger picture is you’re also pushing forward the future of the Church. There’s a lot of opportunity out there and with all of us working together … we’ll be able to meet those visions and those ambitions.

DC: Is there anything you would like to add?

Clark: When I joined the Church [in 2011] it was a real calling and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if someday as part of your career you could serve your faith? To be here in this position and to have this opportunity to serve my faith, to help build the future of the Church, I’m grateful. It’s a magnificent opportunity, a real chance to give back to my faith, which has been a turning point in my life. I’m so grateful and I’m excited to take that enthusiasm into the schools.

COMING UP: With a little help from Seeds of Hope, student gets Catholic education

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Greg and Bridget Agwu, whose Catholic roots run deep to their native country of Nigeria, immigrated to the United States to better their education. And when their four sons were born in Denver they knew giving them a Catholic education would be their first priority as a family.

They scrimped and saved, seldom ate in restaurants, worked bingo and volunteered at each school when their boys attended Loyola School until it closed in 2009, then Blessed Sacrament and finally Regis Jesuit High School.

The two oldest sons, Nnaoma, 20, and Uche, 18, graduated from Regis Jesuit and Chibueze, 16, and Chidera, 15 resume classes there in the fall. Nnaoma attends Santa Clara University where Uche begins classes in September.

But none of the boys would have been able to attend Catholic schools without tuition assistance from Seeds of Hope, the family says.

“Without Seeds of Hope our sons wouldn’t have been able to get a Catholic education and the moral standards that mean so much to us,” said Greg Agwu. “We did everything we could but without the help, our children would have had to go to public schools.”

Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust began in 1993. The nonprofit provides tuition assistance to working poor families attending 11 Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese of Denver. Many families face a financial challenge because annual tuition for kindergarten through eighth-grade is about $4,500 per student.

The families all pay what they can and volunteer at the schools for such things as cafeteria clean-up and fundraising events.

“We work closely with each family on how much they can pay and no one gets full coverage,” said Natalie Mesko, executive director. “The parents have ownership and because of that they work closely with their children on their academic progress.”

The commitment from the families includes traveling long distances to get their children to the schools, Mesko said. One school has students from 27 different zip codes, she said.

“A student’s zip code should not define their ability to receive a Catholic education,” Mesko said. “Once they get into a school they find it is a community that cares and they get to know the faculty. We do whatever we can to keep the child in the school.”

Since 1993, the organization has helped more than 14,000 students and raised more than $24 million. The business community has helped through three annual events but the majority of donations come from individuals, Mesko said. She welcomes any future corporate sponsorships and aid from the city’s professional athletes.

“It is wonderful the generosity of Catholics in the pew and non-Catholics who see the value of a Catholic education especially for inner-city kids,” Mesko said. “The beauty of our donors is that they just believe in the mission of a Catholic education. They are not donating to get their name on a building or for front row seats at a concert. They are so humble and want nothing in return.”

The Agwu couple has had ownership in their sons’ education from day one. They were married at Loyola Parish and their sons received the sacraments of baptism, holy Communion and confirmation at the parish. When the school closed, they transferred to Blessed Sacrament where Greg was hired as a math tutor after he was laid off at Denver Health Medical Center, where Bridget works as a nurse.

“As I get older, I see how past things have led to where we are today,” Uche said. “If we didn’t have Seeds of Hope we wouldn’t have been able to attend Loyola or Blessed Sacrament and that helped us to get to Regis. We would not have met all the people who have impacted our lives.”

Seeds of Hope does not provide financial assistance for high school students but the Agwu sons have been able to get scholarships. This summer, Uche had an internship with Kiewit Construction Company through the help of a Regis Jesuit counselor. He learned more about mechanical engineering, which may become his major at Santa Clara.

“Regis was such a great experience not just academically but they prepare us as people to want more spiritually and mentally,” Uche said.