Chess coach Jay Stallings celebrates 25 years of teaching

Jay Stallings (right) poses with Alfredo Carillo who created a wrought iron chess set for the Sean's Fund dinner on Sunday. Matt Fernandez/ The Signal

Chess players of all ages gathered at the Hyatt Regency Valencia on Sunday to celebrate the memory of Sean Reader and to raise money for Sean’s Fund at the 13th annual Sean’s Fund dinner.

Reader was age 12 when he died from leukemia in 2006, and since then, Sean’s Fund has carried on the legacy of his love for the game of chess.

“Sean was our top student out of the 800 students we had, and he was a big role model for the other kids,” said Jay Stallings, director of the California Youth Chess League and Reader’s former chess coach. “When we first started having these dinners, they were in his parents’ backyard with 25 people, and tonight we have 150 people at the Hyatt all coming together for this cause. Sean was always humble and encouraging to his teammates, who always tried to help them learn, and you can’t just let a soul like that pass without remembering them.”

Laurie Barrett’s three sons were students of Stallings and all played with Reader.

“Sean was a role model for our kids,” Barrett said. “He was able to go through chemotherapy, so coming to play at a chess tournament was nothing compared to that. That was inspiring for other kids to see.”

Angie Nelson, program director for Sean’s Fund, said that of all the charities she has worked for, Sean’s Fund has felt the most like home.

“The community behind Sean’s Fund is a family,” Nelson said. “Everyone pitches in, and to see the legacy he has made and to know that his memory has impacted over 40,000 kids is something that I’m proud to be involved in.” 

Sunday’s dinner featured video presentations, a silent auction and cornhole challenges where teams could win prizes and raffle tickets. The funds raised from the dinner go toward chess sets and backpacks full of supplies for pediatric cancer patients, financial aid for chess lessons for families in need and toward mentoring from chess grandmasters.

The dinner was also a way to celebrate Stallings’ 25 years teaching chess in Santa Clarita. Stallings said he still remembers teaching his first lesson at the Valencia mall on the week of the Northridge earthquake and is proud to have made such an impact on the community.

“I think it’s less about chess and more about teaching my students how to be thinkers and good members of the community,” Stallings said. “It’s incredible for me to look around here to see former students of mine who have grey in their beards, and it’s nice to see the impact that I’ve made these past 25 years.”

Karthik Iyer and his family have attended the Sean’s Fund dinners for five years and said he’s happy to support a worthy cause as well as Stallings.

“Sean’s Fund is a worthy cause that does a good job of taking kids’ minds off of their illness and every kid deserves a chance,” Iyer said. “We need more people like coach Jay in the community and he’s the best at what he does. Our family’s relationship with him started out as just coach and student, but over the years I think it’s grown to the point of being friends.”

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