Clare and Jim Gurbach sat in the bleachers at American Martyrs School’s gym in Manhattan Beach watching their daughter play volleyball when something caught their eye: The other team didn’t have proper equipment.
“They didn’t have nice uniforms. Some of the girls had masking tape on the back of their shirts for their numbers. They didn’t have knee pads. They didn’t have proper shoes,” Clare said. “We had everything. Patty Dodd was even our coach. I think we won that game 25 to 2, and no one feels good when that happens.”
The couple decided to do something about it.
In 2007, Clare and Jim started raising money to fund and support team sports in under-resourced elementary and middle schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. They named their nonprofit the Saint Sebastian Sports Project after the patron saint of athletes.
“We believe in all of the benefits of playing sports, not just the physical ones,” said Clare, who is now the executive director of SSSP. “It’s so important just learning sportsmanship and how to be committed to something and have fun.”
During the 2009-10 academic year, SSSP provided $5,800 to seven school sports programs. This academic school year, SSSP will help 39 schools with grants totaling over $75,000.
The schools use the money to purchase sports equipment for students, such as uniforms and balls. The money is also used to help pay for referee fees, field rental fees and, in some cases, to help offset students’ registration fees.
About half of the money donated is generated during SSSP’s annual fundraiser the “Mulligan.” Event attendees get a “mulligan” for the night, wherein they are able to have one or two of whatever they've given up for Lent.
SSSP also raises money from donations, as well as from grants.
Although SSSP will donate to 39 schools this year, Clare said there are still additional schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that need funding for their athletic programs.
“There’s actually about 100 just in this archdiocese that just really need funding,” Clare said. “In order for us to reach 100 schools, we will need to find a lot more foundation money.”
Over the years, SSSP has become more than a nonprofit that donates money to schools.
In 2014, SSSP remodeled a gym at St. Albert the Great Middle School in Compton. Monies for the project came from a memorial fund for Manhattan Beach resident and sports orthopedics doctor Lewis Yocum, who was the Angels team physician for 36 seasons.
SSSP partnered with another foundation to remodel the gym which has been dedicated as the Dr. Lewis A. Yocum Memorial Gym.
“The reason remodeling that gym was so important is because there are 20 Catholic schools in the inner-city that now play all their sporting games in that gym,” Clare explained. “So instead of playing their volleyball game at their school on the blacktop that’s cracked, uneven and outside where it can be dangerous if you fall, they’re able to play in this gym, and there’s lots of seating so their families can come.”
The nonprofit also hosts tournaments and clinics throughout the year for sports teams in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for postseason play.
SSSP currently hosts tournaments for soccer, volleyball and basketball. And, in October, they'll host a flag football tournament, a first.
In addition to playing in tournaments, some students have toured college campuses with SSSP, such as a recent trip to Loyola Marymount University. Students ate lunch and watched a women’s varsity volleyball match.
“Beyond sports, we’re trying to expose these kids to the notion that they should go to college. That it should be in their plan,” Clare said. “Most of them are not from families that have gone to college. There’s a lot of fear in those families about college. It’s very intimidating to them. They feel like it’s out of reach, but it really isn’t.”
When asked about what’s been most rewarding since starting SSSP, Clare responded with a memory from one of the soccer tournaments they hosted.
During the tournament, she noticed a boys soccer team wearing orange socks and white shorts with orange ribbons on them, similar to those you see for breast cancer. The boys told Clare their coach's brother had been diagnosed with leukemia and was at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The orange socks and ribbons were meant to show they were playing in his honor, as orange ribbons are worn to bring awareness to leukemia.
“We brought everyone together, and we FaceTimed this little boy in his hospital bed,” Clare said. “We had an impromptu prayer service.”
Despite other teams appearing to have a physical advantage, the orange sock-wearing team continued to win games, Clare said. By the end of the day, they had won the tournament.
“They got the big cup, and they took it right to the hospital to that little boy,” Clare said. “That one day tells our whole story: We’re sports first, but we’re faith. We’re community. We’re helping kids have something to play for and have something that makes them feel good.”
For more information about the Saint Sebastian Sports Project, visit saintsebastianproject.org.