Program Co-Director Charles Crawford, lower left, and founder Bruce Stone, lower right, pose with the 2011 seniors during the annual senior send-off ceremony.
By Dana Czapnik, USTA.com
In Richmond, Va., there is a statue of native son Arthur Ashe standing and holding a racquet above the grip in his left hand, his arm bent sharply. In his right hand, he holds three books above his head. At the base of the statue are four young children smiling and reaching up toward him.
"Arthur Ashe held education higher than professional tennis," says Charles Crawford, the co-director of the nonprofit National Junior Tennis and Learning program Rising Stars of Kentucky Tennis in Louisville, Ky. "He harped on the importance of education and bettering and improving one’s self."
To that end, every one of the 70 kids ages five to 18 currently enrolled in the Rising Stars program are required to contribute an essay or a piece of artwork to the USTA’s annual Arthur Ashe essay contest. They are also required to present their report card during every school evaluation period to the program directors to ensure they are keeping up with their school work.
"We’re not making pro tennis players," Crawford says, "but we will allow them to use tennis as a uniting bond between them and as a vehicle to network and better themselves and open up opportunities."
By taking Arthur Ashe’s philosophy and building upon it, the program has had incredible success. Overall, 96 percent of Rising Stars seniors have gone on to college; a total of 13 participants have won the Arthur Ashe Essay and Art contest, in six consecutive years no less; two Rising Stars members attended the six-week Governor’s Scholars Programs at two separate host colleges in Kentucky; and one recent high school senior in the program was awarded a national USTA Serves college scholarship in the amount of $10,000, to be used at the college of her choice.
All this has been achieved by this small, all-volunteer program that operates throughout most of the year in Louisville’s public parks.
"We’re using tennis as a way to build kids’ character and help them start to understand the importance of education," Crawford says.
Beyond teaching kids the sport for a lifetime, Rising Stars also offers academic and college mentoring, and it frequently brings in guest speakers and even college recruiters to talk with the players and their families.
When Bruce Stone—a recently retired USTA Southern employee—started the program 15 years ago, Rising Stars’ mission was to seek out minority, single-parented and at-risk youths, as well as those in low- and middle-income families who could not afford tennis lessons on a consistent basis, and to provide those individuals more opportunities to develop in the sport. Since then, the program has grown to include kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds, which Crawford attributes to the fact that parents from all walks of life are drawn to the program’s philosophy.
"They’re not coming to us for tennis lessons; you can do that anywhere," he says. "You come to us for mentoring."
Moreover, the diversity of mentors and attendees has benefited everyone involved in the program. Crawford says having members from different communities and backgrounds has enriched every participant’s experience, and because of the tennis community Rising Stars has built, those in the program have developed lifelong friendships with kids they never would have had the chance to meet and interact with otherwise.
That first wave of program participants has since moved on to college, but their allegiance remains strong. And when they come home from school, often the first place they check in is at Rising Stars. All involved feel a deep affection and obligation to pay it forward, and many of them serve as teachers and volunteers, mentoring younger kids looking to follow in their footsteps.
"We tell parents that we’re not taking credit for how great of a kid you raised," Crawford says. "We just want to give your kids more opportunities."
Books—and racquet—in hand, Arthur Ashe could not have said it better himself.