DARBY — A check from the other side of the country brought Debi Sanders a whole lot of peace last week.
The donor who wished to remain anonymous helped push her 7-month-long effort to raise nearly $18,500 to pay for a new scoreboard at the Darby High School football field in memory of her son, Jake “Sunshine” Sanders.
Jake Sanders died last year following a courageous battle with Stage 3 non-Hodgkins T-cell lymphoma that touched both the people who call Darby home and many others around the country who followed his journey that included two hospital stays and the final trip back to his family home.
A fundraising effort that helped pay for her son’s expenses to return to Montana ended with an additional $8,000 in the account.
Debi and Jake decided they wanted to keep that money in the community.
Since the old scoreboard at the football field dated the 1970s, they both decided that would be a nice place for the money. Debi Sanders planned to use the $8,000 as seed money. After her son died, she received a bill for $12,000 to pay for the fuel that it cost to fly him home from a Texas hospital.
She ended up using $5,000 from that fund to help pay for that expense.
“I felt like I was starting all over,” she said. “I also decided I was going to raise that money if it was the last thing that I ever did.”
The community of Darby and a group of close friends came alongside her to help make it happen.
“I got a lot of help from my girlfriends,” she said. “It really did take a village to do this thing.”
Along the way, they also helped out another family faced with its own challenge. When a neighbor was involved in a bad horseback riding accident that left him near death, Sanders dipped into the fund to help out his family.
“They didn’t have any insurance,” she said. “I did what I could to help them.”
All along the way, checks continued to trickle in toward the goal of a new scoreboard that would include the phrase Sunshine Strong #61 along the bottom.
Jake Sanders had long blonde hair. His football coach had nicknamed him Sunshine after the character in “Remember the Titans.” His jersey number was 61.
When it came time to drop off the final check to Darby Principal JP McCrossin, Debi Sanders said she couldn’t help but feel "super excited."
“I’ve been so stressed out about this for past six months,” she said. “I thought about it before I went to sleep and would be thinking about it when I woke up. I felt like it was my own debt. … I’ll be so happy when I see it set up for next season’s opening game.”
McCrossin said Sanders won’t be the only one excited to see the new scoreboard.
The old scoreboard was donated to the school by a class sometime in the 1970s. It was challenging to find replacement parts for it and there were times when it didn’t work quite right.
“It was certainly time for an upgrade,” McCrossin said. “It’s been something that Debi has wanted to do in memory of Jake. It’s something that will be important for a lot of people.”
McCrossin’s son, Zach, helped carry Jake Sanders into his home when he returned from to Darby following his last hospital stay.
“This means a lot to me too,” he said. “Jake had so many friends. Through this whole process, he touched the lives of people from all over. Debi has received checks from Florida, Texas, almost everywhere.
“There have been people who have been following this story from back when Jake first went into the hospital,” McCrossin said. “They continue to follow Debi. They talk to her to see how she’s doing. It’s a big story. Way bigger than just this little Darby town.”