NEWS

2011 USTA Award Winners: Shining Stars of the Grass-Roots Game

Thousands of volunteers and organizations throughout the country are dedicated to growing tennis in their communities. Every year, the best of the best are recognized and honored with the USTA’s Community Tennis Awards. This year, the eight individuals and organizations selected continue to go above and beyond in providing opportunities in tennis to adults and children in their areas. These winners are at the forefront in growing the grass-roots game in a way that is not only creating players but positively enhancing lives. Earlier this year, these winners were honored in front of a crowd of their peers at the USTA’s Community Tennis Development Workshop in Arlington, Va.
 
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CTA of the Year: Washington Tennis and Education Foundation
 
The District of Columbia-based Washington Tennis and Education Foundation may be 55 years old, but it hasn’t slowed down one bit. The nonprofit was formed with a single purpose: helping disadvantaged youth through tennis. Since its inception in 1955, however, it has evolved into an organization that also provides academic help to at-risk children and teaches them to apply   lessons of perseverance, fairness and integrity to their lives both on and off the court. Those outstanding goals and attributes earned the WTEF this year’s USTA Community Tennis Association of the Year Award.
 
“We feel very strongly about what tennis can do to improve a person’s life,” says Eleni Rossides, executive director of WTEF. “We believe we are developing minds in the classroom and on the tennis court. We take tennis and all those skills that you can learn—the focus, the determination and the discipline—and say, ‘You can use this on a tennis court, but you can also use this in a classroom and in life.’”
 
WTEF functions on multiple levels. Its Arthur Ashe Children’s Program is an after-school endeavor serving about 450 at-risk students ages 2 through 9 at various D.C. schools. The Arthur Ashe Reading Is Fundamental program is a weekly free literacy program for students in grades 4 and 5. WTEF’s Center for Excellence offers after-school academics, tennis instruction and competition, college prep activities and life skills training for at-risk youth for grades 1 to 12.  This is the 12th consecutive year in which all graduates gained admission to college.
 
In addition, WTEF offers a community outreach program, bringing tennis instruction to five D.C. public schools during their regularly scheduled physical education classes. In the summer, WTEF partners with five area summer camps to offer a one-week session of tennis instruction to hundreds of children.
 
“I’m fortunate to work with an incredible program staff, led by Willis Thomas, our program director,” notes Rossides. “They’ve dedicated their lives to serving the underprivileged children of the District.”
 
Next on WTEF’s agenda is the construction of an expanded facility with six indoor and nine outdoor courts, plus a 10,000-square-foot academic facility. “The children in this neighborhood deserve this,” says Rossides.
 
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Janet Louer USTA Jr. Team Tennis National Organizer of the Year Award: Julie Watson Dick, Georgetown, Ky.
 
Julie Watson Dick’s philosophy is simple: Full speed ahead.
 
Dick first learned about the QuickStart Tennis play format at a USTA Recreational Coach Workshop in 2009, then she organized Georgetown, Ky.’s first season of Jr. Team Tennis. Within a year, 60 children were involved. Within two years, there were 130 children playing JTT and a 12-and-under division was added. A local park and college were brought on board to help provide needed courts. Now plans are in the works to add 14-and-under and 18-and-under divisions. In the meantime, Dick helped set up a Community Tennis Association because she wanted the community involved with the JTT program.
 
“The impact of JTT goes beyond the tennis skills gained on the court,” says Dick, honored with the Janet Louer USTA Jr. Team Tennis National Organizer of the Year Award. “It is my greatest hope that, through tennis, all these kids will find greatness in themselves. As an organizer, I’m glad to have given them an opportunity that will last a lifetime.”
 
When others ask her about starting a junior program, Dick radiates optimism. “Just do it. Start a program, set up a CTA and don’t look back,” she says. “If you have any doubt, you won’t after you see the program work in your community.”
 
She is a big believer in the power of positive parents as well. “Parents want to help their children fi nd their spark, and they can be the best promotion tool for your program. All you need is a few parents and before you know it, a few turns into 10 coaches, over 30 volunteers and 130 junior tennis players—with more growth ahead. At the end of our 2010 season, we held a tournament for all the JTT players and my eyes filled with tears as I watched with pride—130 kids, who started with no tennis experience, playing awesome tennis and loving it.”
 
And Julie Dick isn’t slowing down. Next on her agenda for summer, 2011 is a new program, “Parent Team Tennis,” and she’s every bit as excited about it as she is about working with the JTT program.
 
“The parents will be playing to learn tennis one court down from their children,” she says. “The idea is to not only get them playing tennis, but also give them the skills to play tennis with their child. It will help our program to have more parent involvement.”
 
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Adaptive Tennis Community Service Award: Touch of Tennis, Gwynedd Valley, Pa.
 
The opportunities for individuals with special needs to find recreation are better than they used to be, but it’s still a challenge. Jim Holt’s Touch of Tennis, which began in 1998, was created to help fill that void. Holt (right), a special education teacher at the Wordsworth Academy in Fort Washington, Pa., and head tennis coach at Gwynedd-Mercy College (GMC), says the Touch of Tennis program is fueled by volunteers, including parents, GMC students and others.
 
“The primary purpose is the socialization, and I think most of the kids here have a blast,” notes Holt. “I had been thinking about starting it, then I decided just to do it. I was lucky in that I knew the people and had the resources to tap into.”
 
“There are currently over 65 participants in the program, ranging from as young as 5 to as old as 70,” says Thane Schweyer, tennis service representative for USTA Middle States. “The program accommodates participants with all types of disabilities and special needs, which is great.” And for its continued excellence, dedication and service for special populations, Touch of Tennis is the USTA’s Adaptive Tennis Community Service Award winner.
 
Holt says the program serves a dual purpose, including exposing volunteers to special needs individuals, whom they otherwise might never have met. Parents and caregivers are happy because they’ve found an outlet for kids’ energies and because participants are proud of their newfound abilities. “And of course,” adds Holt, “the program is free.”
 
“Jim Holt and everyone at Touch of Tennis are dedicated to ensuring that everyone with special needs has the opportunity to participate in a meaningful tennis experience,” says Kurt Kamperman, Chief Executive, Community Tennis, USTA.
 
From a beginning where a dozen or more students were involved, the program has grown. Today, students come from more than 30 schools. “It’s just so rewarding,” says Holt.
 
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Eve Kraft Community Service Award: Brenda Gilmore, Upper Marlboro, Md.
 
It’s rare for a kid to take a pledge to be a part of a CTA or NJTL, but the Prince George’s Tennis and Education Foundation isn’t just any CTA or NJTL. And Brenda Gilmore isn’t just any community organizer.
 
Gilmore (right) started PGTEF in 1993 to provide tennis and life skills to the children of Prince George’s County, Md. Now, 18 years later, the organization offers tennis and educational programs for every skill and ability level and has benefited more than 30,000 children.
 
And they all take this pledge: “I understand that smoking and using drugs or alcohol is bad for my body. I believe that tennis is a better and healthier activity. When playing tennis, going to  school or participating in other positive activities, I will do my best to be: consistent in my work ethic; confident in my ability; control my attitude; committed to excellence.”
 
Gilmore expects much from her students—and they deliver, even coming back to teach after graduation. “I now have students who have grown up, gotten married and have kids themselves who are in my program,” she laughs. “Four of my current coaches have returned to volunteer, mentor and tutor the youngsters currently in the program. I love it because it speaks to what they learned about giving back, and it lends itself to continuing a legacy long after I am gone.”
 
The Eve Kraft Community Service Award is particularly meaningful to Gilmore, she says, because, “Eve Kraft is the one who introduced me to tennis.”
 
Gilmore, who is herself in a wheelchair, also is a tireless advocate to students with an array of challenges. She has worked with the local Paralympic Academy to offer weekly tennis and life skills lessons to wheelchair students, and with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to facilitate the training of tennis professionals and offer Jr. Team Tennis and Wheelchair Tennis across the county.
 
And she has a message to kids who might be intimidated by their able-bodied counterparts: “I tell them that tennis is one of the coolest sports because they can easily play with their family and friends regardless of their challenge.”
 
For those thinking of starting a similar organization, she says, just persevere: “Be ready to hang in there for the long haul and remember that it takes over 5,000 steps to walk a mile, but it’s best achieved by moving steadily and attentively, learning from and correcting any missteps along the way.”
 
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Eve Kraft Community Service Award: Bob Bratcher, Wilmington, Del.
 
Having reached the age of 75, Bob Bratcher says he now has spent six decades on the court, playing almost daily. But it wasn’t until age 55 that a session spent teaching his granddaughter to play awakened in him the desire to share the game with others.
 
Bratcher is heavily involved in the Rodney Street Tennis and Tutoring Association and its mission, which is to provide services for at-risk inner-city youngsters in greater Wilmington, and to help them reach their full potential on and off the court. The lessons learned from RSTTA include a combination of academics, athletics, nutrition and civic responsibility. Bratcher also has worked to promote the sport through the annual “Tennis in the Streets” event for the past 16 years, a program that draws upwards of 1,000 children at a time. In addition, he has served as program director for the Berks Regional Tennis Association for the past eight years.
 
“Every time you walk onto a court, you have the opportunity to be a role model for a child,” says Bratcher. “And you may not think that child is listening, but they are. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. My goal is to teach them I care.” And for all of his caring efforts, Bratcher is a recipient of the prestigious Eve Kraft Community Service Award.
 
Long before the USTA’s focus on 10 and Under Tennis, Bratcher was a tireless advocate for teaching young children the sport with right-sized equipment and foam balls. He believed in the power of making tennis fun and in teaching children that respect runs both ways.
 
“He makes kids feel like they’re professionals,” says Danette Brock, Community Service Coordinator for New Castle County. “By the time he’s done, they feel like they can conquer the world with their racquets.”
 
And Bratcher, despite his decades, says has no intention of slowing down or sitting on the sidelines. “My commitment to myself is that I’m going to be involved in tennis until they put me in a box and throw dirt in my face.”
 
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NJTL of the Year Award:  Hartford RALLY: Racquet and Literacy League for Youth, Hartford, Conn.
 
Four years ago, when Becki Steinberg was a high school student in Needham, Mass., she enjoyed volunteering with the urban youngsters who learned tennis, literacy and life skills through Tenacity, a Boston-based nonprofit organization. She hoped to continue volunteering in a similar manner after her family moved to Avon, Conn., but she couldn’t find anything similar in the Greater Hartford community. So she founded a program of her own, Hartford RALLY: Racquet and Literacy League for Youth.
 
Steinberg says she was “completely surprised and grateful” when RALLY was honored recently with an NJTL of the Year Award (under $50,000 budget category) from the USTA for its contribution to grass-roots tennis.
 
“To be recognized on a national level is so humbling, especially after seeing how impactful the other award recipients’ projects are,” she notes. “We’re in extraordinary company.”
 
RALLY is a USTA Community Tennis Association initiative that provides Hartford youngsters with free tennis lessons and instruction in reading and writing. When the four-week summer program began in 2008, the daily camp peaked at 20 participants between 5 and 10 years old, with four volunteers. Last summer, the program drew 50 campers and a dozen high school-aged volunteers.
 
In fact, the age cut-off was expanded to 12 years old to accommodate campers who began with the program. The daily schedule, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon, includes tennis instruction utilizing the QuickStart Tennis play format, reading and writing sessions, a snack and free time on a playground. Equally important is the focus on self-confidence, integrity, teamwork, cooperation and the connection between perseverance and success.
 
Last summer, Steinberg turned over the directorial duties to her sister, Emily, a senior at the Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford who has volunteered with RALLY since the beginning. Emily said the staff keeps sessions simple and fun, providing a safe, comfortable place to learn while developing relationships with friends and peer counselors.
“We’re so proud and happy to help the kids and see how much they’re benefiting,” Emily says.
 
“We’ve retained so many kids and gotten to know them so well,” adds Becki, who now attends the University of Pennsylvania. “It really is incredible to come back now as an observer and see how the kids are progressing in tennis, and also reading more advanced books. Their passion is absolutely the best part.”
 
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NJTL of the Year Award: New York Junior Tennis League, New York, N.Y.
 
Having Arthur Ashe as one of your founders is enough to get you noticed—but it’s what an organization does in the years that follow that proves whether or not it lives up to its mission statement. The New York Junior Tennis League has served notice that it’s more than deserving of its reputation.
 
NYJTL is the largest tennis- and education-themed community organization in the country, with on-court programming introducing tennis to staggering numbers of underserved children in New York City’s fi ve boroughs. It’s the recipient of the USTA’s NJTL of the Year Award ($500,000+ budget category).
 
“The New York Junior Tennis League serves over 100,000 kids a year, from beginners all the way up to our advanced training program,” says Ron Nano, NYJTL’s director of tennis. “NYJTL provides many different life lessons. Tennis teaches children how to problem-solve, how to be independent thinkers, sportsmanship as well as many different life skills.”
 
NYJTL also offers comprehensive off-court programming in the form of the Aces Clubs After-School Program, Advanced Training Program, Arthur Ashe Educational Guidance Program, Community Tennis Program and the Schoolyard Tennis Program. All are free.
 
“Tennis also is used as the hook to get participants engaged in our other programs such as homework help, nutrition and character development,” says Nano. “Today, our young  participants take these lessons and skills and implement them into their lives.
 
We feel it in a firm handshake or see it when they make eye contact with their teachers in school. It’s these lessons that will translate into skills that will help propel them into a top college or land a good job or get into a fine career.”
 
“If you look at the numbers of youngsters who have been affected by this,” says former NYC Mayor David Dinkins, who serves on the board of NYJTL, “you really are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. There are many youngsters who simply become better people because of tennis.”
 
Adds chairman emeritus Lewis “Skip” Hartman, who co-founded the NYJTL with Ashe in 1971, “When savvy, committed tennis volunteers tackle the important problems that face their communities, they can be very successful.”
 
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NJTL of the Year Award: Saint Paul Urban Tennis, St. Paul, Minn.
 
As a volunteer board member at Minneapolis Urban Tennis for several years, Sandy Martin worked hard alongside her colleagues to provide tennis instruction, life skills and mentoring for local youngsters. In 1991, she helped establish Saint Paul Urban Tennis (SPUT) in Minnesota so children in her hometown could enjoy the same opportunities.
 
“It’s amazing to be recognized for our effort over the past 20 years,” Martin says of the program’s NJTL of the Year Award ($50,000 to $500,000 budget category). “We always knew we were doing what we needed to do, which is making a difference.”
 
With a $10,000 seed grant from Minneapolis Urban Tennis (now Minneapolis InnerCity Tennis), Martin joined schoolteachers and tennis players John King and Fred King (no relation) in launching the low-cost program. That first year, there were three public courts with 125 participants between 5 and 18 years old, many who had been recruited from soccer fields.
 
Today, more than 4,000 kids play on 108 courts at 33 parks and schools throughout the city. In 2010, SPUT implemented its Tennis in the Streets program at 22 additional sites, where 10 and Under Tennis is played in parking lots, playgrounds and other improvised areas.
 
SPUT supports children of all backgrounds with four components: the program is delivered in the neighborhoods where the kids live; life skills training, such as nutrition, are taught every day; no child is turned away because of an inability to pay; and future leaders are developed from within the program. In fact, 57 of last year’s 85 instructors had at one time participated in the program.
 
“I remember Arthur Ashe saying we can use tennis to get the attention of these kids to talk about things that are even more important in life. We’ve held onto that,” says Martin, who for the last 15 years has been mayor of the Saint Paul suburb of Shoreview, Minn. “Tennis provides so many opportunities for respect, honesty, goal-setting and ethics that we’ve been able to infuse life skills into the curriculum.”
 
Marc Miller, a longtime SPUT supporter who now is in his third year as executive director, says the next goal is constructing a public indoor facility so the summer program can run at full capacity year-round. Currently, the winter is dedicated to an indoor program at recreation centers servicing about 250 kids, plus fundraising efforts to support all the program participants—62 percent of whom received some scholarship assistance last year.
 
“We don’t have a fi rm plan in place for an indoor facility, so we have not yet started a capital campaign,” Miller said. “We’re just out there, trying to do what’s right for the kids.”
 
 

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