St. Sebastian keeps ball rollin’ for school sports

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: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”