Two weeks before Christmas, Marty Burbank heard a sermon that would change his life.
As his pastor spoke about sacrifice, the Fullerton, California, lawyer’s mind drifted to the sailboat he and his wife had been saving for – suddenly, the plan lost its appeal.
“At that point, I really felt like buying myself a boat was a very selfish thing,” Burbank, 51, tells PEOPLE.
Instead of buying the boat of their dreams, Burbank and his wife, Seon Chun-Burbank, decided to do something really extraordinary. The couple had been volunteering at an elementary school in the neighboring city of Anaheim when Marty noticed the school’s walls were decorated with flags and pennants of colleges and universities.
The Burbanks were impressed by Rio Vista Elementary School’s emphasis on higher education – especially in light of the fact that the demographic the school serves is low-income and few parents hold degrees themselves.
“I really thought what that school was doing in preparing kids for college was really exciting, but money was still a potential barrier,” Burbank says.
So, instead of buying the sailboat they’d been dreaming of, Burbank and his wife made a pledge: The couple offered to use that money to pay the college tuition of all 26 kindergarten students at the school. With inflation, he estimates the total cost will be about $1,182,000 to put every student through two years of community college and two years at an in-state university.
“I’ve pretty much canceled the boat plans until these kids get educated and if I win the lottery, maybe I’ll buy a boat,” he says.
When kindergarten teacher Tessa Ashton told her students about the Burbanks’ plan, only a few students understood what the couple was offering. The Burbanks were there to witness the students’ joy and confusion.
“Some children said, ‘Huh?’ and some children were surprised and happy,” Chun-Burbank, 43, tells PEOPLE. “One girl, I clearly remember her eyes got really big and she gasped. That made me feel really good.”
The couple knows the incredible burden they’ve relieved the children of because they lived with it themselves. Both Burbank and Chun-Burbank were the first in their families to graduate from college and both were able to do so only with financial help – Burbank from the military and Chun-Burbank from an aunt.
When Chun-Burbank was accepted to college in her native South Korea, her parents were unable to pay her first semester’s tuition, so her aunt stepped in.
“Without her, I’m 100 percent sure I would not be here and I would not be the way I am right now,” Chun-Burbank says.
“Not everybody needs to go to college, but college gives you a lot of opportunities, it opens so many doors,” she continues. “I hope to give the [students] some comfort in knowing if they want to go to college, there’s a way.”
The only requirement the students must meet is that each year they must send the Burbanks a drawing or essay about what graduating from college will mean to them.
“I want the kids to visualize what their lives will be like as college graduates,” Burbank says. “I want them to visualize every year how proud their families will be.”
After college, both Chun-Burbank and Burbank ended up pursuing advanced degrees. He’s now an attorney and she’s an early-childhood education chair at Vanguard University. Education is a passion they share, much like sailing.
“We met on a boat, got engaged on a boat and got married on a yacht in Newport Beach,” Chun-Burbank says. “Sailing is one of the things Marty really values and it has a lot of personal meaning to him.”
“Then he decided to give that up and I think we both agree this is more meaningful,” she adds. “We can always rent a boat.”