Face-to-Face With the Disparity of Resources Between Catholic Schools in L.A.

The Saint Sebastian Sports Project aims to level the playing field.

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  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

It’s 2007, and Clare and Jim Gurbach’s oldest daughter, Sarah, is in the seventh grade. A student at American Martyrs, Sarah and her teammates are competing in a volleyball tournament at St. Monica Catholic School in Santa Monica. The American Martyrs girls are ready. They’ve received excellent training from their coach, two-time UCLA All-American and professional beach volleyball player Patty Dodd. Their uniforms are pristine, with each player sporting kneepads and the proper footwear.

The same cannot be said for the girls on the opposing team. A couple of the players have their numbers taped on the back of their jerseys. Many aren’t wearing appropriate shoes or protective kneepads, despite playing on blacktop.

“We won that game 25 to 2,” Clare notes. But it wasn’t a sweet victory for the Gurbachs. The disparity of available resources between the two schools was staggering. And Clare and Jim wanted to better understand why.

“A lot of schools in this archdiocese are under- resourced; their families cannot pay even close to the full tuition,” Clare notes. “And as a result, they struggle to provide any extracurricular activities. Art, music, sports—it’s hard for them to have any of these.”

Living in a community where many children grow up playing club sports and attend clinics or camps to cultivate their athleticism, the Gurbachs had not previously witnessed the gross lack of resources for some of L.A.’s most underserved Catholic schools. Seeing it firsthand stirred something inside them. They knew they wanted to level the playing field; they just needed to figure out how.

A bit more research later, and Clare and Jim felt ready to start discussing a plan of action. In the fall of 2008, seven friends sat down at a table at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House for what would later be referred to as the first board meeting of the Saint Sebastian Sports Project (SSSP). Sitting at the table with Clare and Jim were Jennifer Lovoy, Tim Lovoy, Jamie Wagenbach, Karin Muff and Donna Foote Shalvoy. Together the group discussed how they could help.

With a pool of talent within arm’s reach, Clare and Jim were discussing their plan with a dream team. “What’s great is your friends are really good at what they do,” Jim says. “We have a very strong board who founded [the Saint Sebastian Sports Project] 11 years ago,” Clare adds. “It’s a group of doers with different skill sets. And we all contribute a ton of time. This is a team effort.”

The mission behind establishing SSSP was to raise funds in order to provide resources for Catholic schools in need. The goal was clear, but reaching it would be a learning process. “We were a bunch of well-meaning volunteers trying to figure this out,” Jim says.

SSSP’s first fundraiser was held in Clare and Jim’s living room with roughly a dozen couples and a few school principals in attendance. “I literally used LegalZoom to file our initial documents,” Clare points out. Soon after, a lawyer friend of the family enlisted the help of his law firm to take on SSSP’s legal work pro bono. “We were fortunate that we had a lot of people supporting us,” Clare says.

In spring of 2009, SSSP gave their first school disbursement. “We wrote five checks for $2,500. That is where we started,” Clare notes. “Last week we wrote 60 checks for over $100,000.”

“I came from a family where our parents taught us to always give back and always be thinking of others.”

What began as a well-intentioned, grassroots effort has evolved into an organization serving more than 60 schools across Southern California and Denver, Colorado. With that growth, SSSP has been able to gain access to data providing information that enables the organization to approach schools that really need their help.

Their annual fundraiser, The Mulligan, has gone from a dozen or so couples in the Gurbach’s living room to 250 attendees in the American Martyrs O’Donnell Hall. This year marked the 11th annual Mulligan; the Knights of Columbus Queen of Martyrs Council 4567 was honored with the 2019 Karen Beebe Arrow Award for its “incredible commitment to both funding SSSP but also volunteering to be liaisons,” Clare notes.

Additional funding comes from other organizations in the form of grants, including LA84—a foundation established with the surplus from the 1984 Olympics hosted in Los Angeles. “We get a grant from them every two years because we are fulfilling their mission of assisting with sports,” Clare says.

Private donations have also greatly contributed to SSSP’s growth. When Los Angeles Angels orthopedic surgeon Lewis Yocum died, it was requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to SSSP. “He was passionate about helping kids who are less fortunate, and passionate about sports,” Jim notes.

With donations pouring in from professional baseball teams, players and agents who knew Dr. Yocum, SSSP received a large sum of money. Partnering with J.F. Shea Co., they put that money to work refurbishing the gym at St. Albert the Great Elementary School in Compton. Since 2014, the Lew Yocum Memorial Gym has served athletes from 20 nearby schools. An annual tournament at the gym raises money to maintain the facility.

In addition to fundraising for improved facilities, uniforms, refs and, in some cases, registration fees, the most basic need for these young athletes is balls. “That’s where Kerri Walsh Jennings comes in,” Clare points out about the professional beach volleyball player and Manhattan Beach resident. “She really understood our mission, so through her agent she got us a discount at Wilson. We’re going directly to the source now, and she 100% made that happen. We just bought about $10,000 worth of balls. Every school walks away with a bag of balls when they get their check.”

To aid in the training of these young athletes, SSSP provides soccer camps and tournaments for soccer, volleyball, football and basketball. “We’ve developed relationships with USC and LMU, and we have college visit days,” Clare adds.

With the help of Jamal Adams, head varsity basketball coach at Loyola High School and SSSP advisory board member, SSSP initiated a Leadership Academy in May 2016. “An eighth-grade girl and boy from every school that we support is nominated by their school to come to a leadership day,” Clare says. “We develop self-awareness and skills to thrive in high school through games and activities. We’re really proud of that academy.”

This year SSSP added 11 new schools—their largest increase to date. “The word is out,” Clare says. “We just saw a surge in applications.” But with increased growth comes increased responsibility. “We have to grow at a pace we can sustain because once you bring in a school, they’re really counting on you to help them every year.”

The Gurbachs, along with SSSP’s executive and advisory boards, don’t have any plans to slow down. With SSSP’s increased growth, they hope for increased awareness and perhaps to gain the interest of future partners.

“Giving back is in her DNA,” Jim says about his wife. “I came from a family where our parents taught us to always give back and always be thinking of others,” Clare says. “I was definitely raised with this mindset.”

Clare and Jim’s three daughters, Sarah, Lauren and Taryn, have already shown an eagerness to give back through partnerships with their respective universities. Clearly, giving back is a mindset they were raised with as well.

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