By Jane Waterstradt, special to USTA.com
It’s been a little more than a year now since the first group of Somalia refugees living in Salt Lake City participated in a USTA Free Play Day Tennis event, and the success and popularity of events since then will likely lead to more in the future.
Dan Alcala of the Because He First Loved Us Ministry got the ball rolling on the events, treaming with USTA board member Andrew Valdez, a Saly Lake City judge in the juvenile court system, in getting a grant to host the Play Days for underprivileged groups.
“A lot of the kids could play soccer or basketball but it takes a community," said Alcala. "But with tennis, you can grab a partner or find a wall and start hitting tennis balls.”
Said Valdez: “These kids are from refugee camps and haven’t gotten to experience a lot of different things. So we try and get them to expand their horizons and have been able to take them to some tennis clubs, to local parks to teach them this sport, which is a lifetime sport.
“Tennis is a sport of opportunities. I grew up where my whole world was nine blocks. I never saw a park until someone put a racket in my hand. And I see the same joy and hope and wonderment that I was experiencing as a youth in the faces of these kids. These kids are not just experiencing tennis, but also freedom.”
Putting on the events for the displaced Somalians has required a total team effort. In addition to Alcala and Valdez, team members include event organizer Jane Waterstradt, the Utah Tennis Association Tennis Service Representative, and Rod Horton, the director of Get Tough Tennis.
“We really just try and have fun with them,” said Horton, the Operations Manager at the Salt Lake Tennis & Swim Club where last month’s clinics were held. “That’s the biggest thing. And to get them interested in tennis. They are a little bit nervous at first, but they’re all great kids.”
Horton added: “It’s like Judge Valdez says: Tennis saved his life. So it’s fun to see where tennis might take some of these kids. You never know. Some may never play tennis again, or maybe some will come back and have a good time. They have fun and are experiencing something for the first time. This is about a lot of people coming together and having some fun.”