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Making a Difference

By Jonathan Whitbourne

Robin Burton has tremendous respect for Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, but they’re not her favorite players. Not even close. Instead, she roots passionately for athletes who, against all odds, are standing defiantly on tennis courts across the country, refusing to let physical setbacks rob them of their mobility or love of sports.

Burton is the executive director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Assistance Fund, a nonprofit organization that uses sports to improve the lives of people with physical challenges. Four years ago, OPAF launched First Volley, an adaptive tennis clinic for amputees, orthosis wearers and those with other physical challenges who want to play tennis. The idea behind the program is simple: Get people on the court, get them socializing with others and get them to believe in themselves again.

“With First Volley, were not just building skills—we’re really building confidence,” Burton says. “What these people have gone through has changed their life and their personality; many of them are withdrawn and lacking confidence. But at First Volley clinics they’re meeting and communicating with people just like them. They see that they’re not alone, that tennis is a way to connect and move forward with life.”

First Volley is just one of the many inspiring programs that receives funding from USTA Serves, the philanthropic arm of the USTA. For nearly a decade, USTA Serves has given much-needed financial assistance to pioneering programs that use tennis and education to enhance the lives of disadvantaged children and individuals with disabilities. Since its inception in 2001, when it was known as the USTA Tennis and Education Foundation, USTA Serves has dispersed close to $10 million in Aces for Kids grants to 168 programs in 127 cities. In addition, USTA Serves has awarded $2 million in college scholarships to more than 400 students.

The monetary sums are impressive, but the people and programs benefiting from them are even more so. “USTA Serves is about so much more than tennis; it’s about developing the whole child emotionally, intellectually, physically and socially,” says Karen Martin-Eliezer, Chief Executive of USTA Serves. “We’re using tennis as a vehicle to teach life skills, to help develop character, to foster honesty and accountability. We’re not about creating future tennis champions, we’re about creating responsible, productive citizens.”

THE PERFECT PARTNERSHIP

USTA Serves and the USTA are closely linked but operate as separate entities. For instance, USTA Serves is a not-for-profit group with 501(c) status, meaning all donations made to the Foundation are 100 percent tax deductible. (To make a donation to USTA Serves, see “Give Back” on the opposite page.) Another plus: Since the USTA finances most of the administrative and operational costs of USTA Serves, the Foundation has nearly zero overhead and can disburse all the money it raises to support programs and scholarships.

Also, USTA Serves doesn’t run programs; it funds them. It’s up to the grant recipients to sustain programming, hire staff, secure courts and provide kids with academic assistance and mentoring. That said, USTA Serves closely monitors its investments, making sure the programs are following through with their tennis-and-education missions while making a difference in children’s lives (such as having a positive impact on health and nutrition habits). Being aligned with the USTA makes this monitoring process easier and
more cost effective, an advantage that isn’t lost on those who run USTA Serves.

“Having the USTA’s resources is huge for us,” says USTA Serves President and U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe. “This allows us to reach more people, more kids, more special populations. And in the end, that’s our biggest goal—to bring tennis and education to as many kids as possible.”

When McEnroe talks about USTA Serves, the word he emphasizes most is education. That’s because in order to receive an Aces for Kids grant from USTA Serves, a program must offer both tennis instruction and an educational component. Tutoring, SAT preparation, community service, life skills classes that include lessons on proper nutrition are just some of the academic services being offered by programs that receive USTA Serves grants. It’s the best way, according to McEnroe, to ensure that kids are strengthening both their bodies and minds.

“Tennis and education are the perfect fit because they both teach kids so much,” says McEnroe, who’s quick to point out that USTA Serves has helped provide more than 16 million hours of educational and mentoring help. “With tennis, you have to learn to make quick decisions, use strategy and be honest when calling your own lines. In the classroom, you’re developing and perfecting problem-solving skills that will help you for the rest of your life. The programs give kids a strong foundation so they can grow into responsible adults who will go on to make a positive impact on society.”

ADVANTAGE, KIDS

Those at the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation know a thing or two about building future champions in life. Based in an economically depressed section of Jacksonville, Fla., where violent crime is commonplace and more than 60 percent of children are obese or overweight, MWKF brings hope and positive role models to kids desperately in need of both. Founded in 1994 by former tennis pro MaliVai Washington and partially funded by USTA Serves, MWKF offers an ambitious, life-enhancing program called Tennis and Tutoring—TNT, for short.

TNT is a free after-school program for kids in grades one through six that meets five days a week. Each three-hour day is divided into three sections: one hour of academic tutoring, one hour of tennis or recreational activity, and one hour of age-appropriate life skills lessons. Currently 120 kids are enrolled in the program, which is run by a team of volunteers and paid staffers. Entering its seventh year, TNT’s first class is now entering college, a milestone that both inspires and motivates MWKF’s Executive Director Terri Florio.

“Through tennis and education, we’re enlightening kids and giving them the opportunity to see that if they work hard and get an education, the world will open up to them,” Florio says. “We’re working with them so they have a plan after high school, whether that’s college, trade school, the military, or something else that’s equally productive. We’re teaching them that there is hope, that you can be successful if you’re willing to work hard for it.”

Since 2003, MWKF has received five grants from USTA Serves totaling approximately $100,000, plus $190,000 from USTA Serves/USTA National Junior Tennis League/Ford Foundation for the Community Building Initiative. This money has helped to fund the wide variety of tennis and education programming that’s now available in MWFK’s state of the art, newly constructed youth tennis center. The 9,200-square-foot facility features eight regulation courts, three QuickStart Tennis courts, four classrooms for homework and a state-of-the art media lab complete with 20 wireless computers. It’s the perfect marriage of academics and athletics, a balance USTA Serves looks for when reviewing and funding programs.

“We’re not funding country-club tennis; we’re funding the programs that serve at-risk kids and those with special needs,” Martin-Eliezer says. “These children need these programs. For many of them, it’s the best part of their day. We use tennis as the hook to get them to come to the program, but once they’re there, they learn so much more. They learn about life, about the value of education. They learn how to be a good person and how to be good to others.”

And, of course, they learn that tennis is a game of love.
 
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