Andrew A. Valdez
Andrew A. Valdez began serving a first two-year term as a Director at Large on the USTA Board of Directors in January 2011. He has been a judge in the Third District Juvenile Court in Utah since 1993 and during that time founded the Village Project Mentoring program and co-founded the Tennis and Tutoring program, an after-school initiative that teaches tennis and sportsmanship and matches inner-city grade-school students with tutors who help improve their academic skills.
Valdez grew up in a poor neighborhood in Salt Lake City and credits tennis with opening new worlds of possibility to him. He wrote a book, "No One Makes It Alone," chronicling his upbringing and relationship with his mentor, Jack Keller, and the important role tennis played in his life. To this day, Valdez remains an avid public park player.
He spoke with USTA.com about his programs and messages for kids, the importance of tennis in his life, his book, Hispanic Heritage Month and more.
USTA.com: What are some of the benefits of tennis for kids, especially benefits that extend past just hitting the ball? What can tennis teach them?
Andrew A. Valdez: The benefit of tennis to kids is that it expands their world. It places them into an environment of accomplished people, people who have many stories about the opportunities tennis has given them. A lot of kids play tennis because they want to go to college and hope they get a scholarship, but others play tennis because they are good at it and are competitive. In my experience, tennis took me out of a nine-block radius -- that was my life was nine blocks -- and took me to a park for the first time and exposed me to people from a completely different world: educated people, accomplished people, people who problem solve without violence. It gave me an identity. And what I try to talk to parents about and why tennis is important is because it gives kids an identity. As a tennis player, you have a different identity from most kids, and what follows that are usually good things and positive purposes in life.
USTA.com: When you talk to kids, what do you tell them about your background? What message do you hope it sends to people that people can come/succeed from any background?
Andrew A. Valdez: I tell them through tennis and through this person who taught me how to play the sport and extended that hand of kindness to me, he gave me hope. Hope that there was a big world out there, that there were unlimited possibilities in life, as opposed to the small world I was living in. Sports does that for folks. Tennis is unique because it is an individual sport but it is a sport that brings so many different people together. Once you are a tennis player, you are a tennis player. You don’t belong to a particular gang or a particular neighborhood or a particular race. You are a tennis player. The kids need to understand that that is a different identity and a different membership that really has a positive purpose in life.
I tell them the story about when I went to San Quentin prison in California to play tennis there at the area where they keep the condemned men and the people who are serving life. As we were walking through the grounds, we are warned by the guards that we are crossing all these different gang territories -- the blacks, the browns, the white nation gang -- to be careful and not to say anything, but once we got on the tennis court, where the whole yard was segregated according to race, the tennis court had all colors there, all different types of backgrounds. And the one thing that struck me more than anything else was while they were on the tennis courts, they didn’t identify with any of their gangs or ethnicities. They were all tennis players with that purpose for being there. Of course, after we played, they had to go back to their races. But that is what tennis does. It brings people together, and once you identify yourself as your tennis players, you have so much more positive commonality than anything else.
USTA.com: When did you visit the prison? How did you decide to make the trip?
Andrew A. Valdez: It was about four years ago. I went to Stanford to give a talk and to visit the East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring (EPATT) program, which is their tennis and tutoring program, so that we could start one here, and I found out about the tennis court at the prison through an article I read in Tennis magazine. I asked if I could go down there and take some books and also play tennis with the convicts. It took a while to get clearance, but I pulled some rank and was able to go in there for half a day with those folks.
While I was there, they were bringing a bunch of young kids for a prison tour from Northern California, and we saw them as they were walking in, and they were all just happy go lucky, not paying much attention, and then one of the officers came to me at the tennis court, said ‘We have a bunch of kids in this other area. Would you mind talking to them?’
I went over to talk to them, and they were in this big warehouse, sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded by all these current prisoners, who were yelling at the kids about how bad gangs were, etc. The kids were very intimidated. When it was my turn, I got into the middle of the group, and I said, ‘How many times have you been told gangs are bad?’ ‘How many times have you been told not to be around them?’ ‘How many of you have been told that a half dozen times?’ They all raised their hands. I said, ‘Let me tell you how you can get out of a gang.’ I told them my story, where tennis had replaced my identity in my group because it forced me to deal with different people, a different world and changed my identity from a street kid who liked to fight and be kind of a difficult kid into somebody who had a purpose in life. I told them, when people tell you to get out of a gang the next question you ask is, ‘How can I replace it? What can I replace it with?"
And usually what happens if you replace a negative peer group or purpose with a positive peer group of purpose. It changes the child. It does no good just to lecture them. I don’t do that in my court. Even the gang convicts that were there came up to me and said, ‘We never thought of that. All we do is yell at the kids and expect them to get the message and walk out of here and change their lives.’ But kids need help in replacing the negative with the positive.
USTA.com: You talk about, in your book, how tennis opened doors for you. Do you still get reaction from the book five years later?
Andrew A. Valdez: I do from both sides, from kids who are struggling and read my book and were inspired to keep working to overcome those struggles but also from adults who have mentored a child and questioned whether they made a difference in a child’s life or not or mentors who mentored children to have a child come back later on and show their appreciation. What I tell mentors is when you mentor a child, you may expect all these things to change. Maybe you want the child to become as successful or meet the expectations you have for success, but what really matters is you made a different in the child’s life because you made that child feel like he/she matters.
Even though a child may go to the negative side or do things that never get them out of that dysfunctional cycle, if you make a child feel like he or she matters, then you have accomplished something in life. I get return calls and return visits from not only children but adults. And that is why I wrote the book. I wrote the book not only necessarily to tell my story, because my story is one of many stories, but to inspire kids who are struggling and also to motivate adults to get involved in the life of a child and see if they can make a difference in some manner, maybe not to the degree that Jack made in my life, but if you make a child believe he or she matters, than you have made a difference in that child’s life.
USTA.com: Talk about your Tennis and Tutoring Program, just one of many programs you have for at-risk children. When did it start? How did it come about?
Andrew A. Valdez: We copied the program out of Stanford, the EPATT program. We decided that instead of waiting for the kids to come to my court, we decided we would target 9, 10, 11 year olds because those are critical times for children in terms of them choosing friends and choosing identities. We partnered with the mayors’ office, the Salt Lake City school district, the Liberty Park Tennis Center, where I grew up playing tennis, Chevron Oil, the University of Utah to provide tutors through their service learning programs, and we decided we would target a school close to the park, which was considered very high risk, and we can give them an hour of tennis and an hour of tutoring every Tuesday and Thursday. We started with third graders, and we are in our third year, and we have third fourth and fifth graders and a total of 32 kids.
We are trying to do the same thing that Jack did for me. It gives them an opportunity to go to a park for at least two hours. They get their tutoring in the park, where we converted a storage shed into a classroom, and open up their world, show them a world of different possibilities. But just as important is that we have a very strong parental component. Parents are required to participate, to be there to pick the kids up, to drop them off and follow up on what the instructors tell them to do. I think one of the reasons we are successful is because we hook the parents, and if you hook the parents, I have always said, you will hook the kids.
We just started with a new third-grade class, and it runs through the school year. During the summer months, there is some free tennis that is offered in the park if they want to play. They all get racquets; we got some money to buy the kids shoes. Some kids did not have shoes or the proper clothing or racquets. Chevron Oil gave us a grant of about $40,000 over the course of the last three years to help us with these kids and the classroom material and also refurbishing the shed.
We do 10 and Under Tennis for kids 10 and under. It is not a pure form of 10 and Under, but we use the soft balls, and the instructors are teaching pros at Liberty Park, so they are familiar with 10 and Under Tennis. As they grow older, sometimes we still use the soft balls to keep the ball in play, but they are using the harder balls for the older kids.
USTA.com: You also have a tennis program for kids on probation who have come through your courtroom. Can you talk about how that program works and how it relates to your Village Project Mentoring Program?
Andrew A. Valdez: These are older kids, kids who are on probation, kids who have been incarcerated, lived in foster care or lived in shelter homes. We run that every Thursday. We come out to the same park for an hour and a half. I have some teaching pros -- one is a University of Utah tennis player -- come out and spend an hour and a half with the kids and teach them tennis. No tutoring. These kids are basically gang-involved youth, and one of the reasons I started this was to supplement their probation services but to also give them an opportunity to go to a park for an hour and a half a week, and again try to expand their world, surround them with positive adults. These kids are a tougher group. I’ve had to go down there and play judge and quell disputes and various other issues, but I have been running that program for about eight years now.
I got them involved just because I established a mentoring program 16 years ago where we match one responsible adult with a child that needs a responsible adult in their life, and I decided I am going to try this because I found a pro who said, ‘I’d like to help you with your court.’ I said, ‘Let’s start this program for kids. I’ll get the kids there. We will transport them and teach them to play tennis.’ The way we identify them, we just pick a kid who has some athletic ability and who understands there will be a commitment, and there is no real criteria except for the age, but we have kids from 12 to 18 in that program.
The one thing I am trying to do is replace their world with another world. A lot of the kids are gang involved, and so when I tell a kid, ‘You have to get out of the gang,’ and I take it away from him or order it be taken away, I try to replace it with someone else. That is part of my court orders.
USTA.com: How often do you play tennis now?
Andrew A. Valdez: I try to play at least two or three times a week. I have to; it is good for my stress. I don’t play this year, but I have played USTA Leagues and went to 4.5 Senior National Championships in 2008. We should have won it, but we were so old we couldn’t walk after four matches. We just ran out of gas. One of the problems we had was we only took nine guys to Nationals, which was in Indian Wells, Calif. Southern California had like 18 or 19 players. They were ready for it, we weren’t. It was a lot of fun, though. The only reason I haven’t played leagues since then is I just haven’t had the time.
USTA.com: Why do you think it is important to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, including in tennis?
Andrew A. Valdez: I think Hispanic Heritage Month is good because it does celebrate and focus on not just athletes but on artists, poets, writers, doctors, lawyers and veterans and does show and highlight the rich history of the Hispanic community. Success can be measured in so many ways. I am successful because of tennis. I am successful because the person who taught me how to play tennis taught me values, as well.
When I talk to children about tennis, I don’t just talk about succeeding in the sport but about succeeding in life, and that is what (USTA President and Chairman of the Board) Jon Vegosen’s message is all about. It is a sport of opportunity that should include many backgrounds with many, many stories, but all of them have the same American spirit. I think the theme of Hispanic Heritage Month this year is many backgrounds, many stories and one American spirit, and that is what tennis is all about, as well. It fits right in with what we are trying to do with the USTA. It is a good, positive focus on the Hispanic community.
I go in the Hispanic community and speak, and a lot of folks are amazed with what I have done and that I was able to do it, but, like I said in my book, no one makes it alone, and that is how I did it.
USTA.com: How much are you enjoying being on the USTA Board of Directors?
Andrew A. Valdez: I am enjoying it. It was an interesting experience going go to the US Open and watching things from the inside as opposed to the outside looking in. The good thing about it is everyone has the same heart. They want to do what is right for the sport but also for the population. I have been on a learning curve; I didn’t come up through all the other committees and districts and sections, but my voice is the voice of someone who grew up playing tennis and credits tennis for not just changing his life but saving his life.