Growing the Game in Woodstock

Scott Sode | October 23, 2020

This past June, Woodstock Tennis Club members Vivienne Hodges and Dana Patton were having a socially-distanced lunch together, talking about the state of the world. The pandemic, which had particularly devastated New York in the months prior, was only starting to recede at the local level. Just days earlier, George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers had been captured on cameras, leading to protests that engulfed cities across the country. “It was just one of those times where you couldn’t help but ask yourself: What can we do?” Patton says. “We’re kind of in a little bubble up here in Woodstock, but there must be something.”  


During their discussion, Patton suggested creating scholarships to Woodstock’s summer tennis camp for local underserved youth in the area. Hodges’ “eyes lit up,” recalls Patton. Quickly, Hodges proposed the idea to her fellow board members at the club.


“The board loved it,” Hodges says. “So we let the membership know through one of our weekly newsletters. Members of the club were so generous, so spontaneously generous. They required no pushing at all. Very quickly the checks came pouring in. We raised over $2,000 in just a few days. And very, very shortly we had had enough money for eight kids to come to Woodstock’s junior camp.”


Fundraising was easy, but the pandemic—and the tail-end of a months-long quarantine—made the next part harder. For nearly a month, Hodges and Patton contacted a host of local non-profit organizations, church leaders and summer camp programs in pursuit of local kids who might be interested in learning to play, all to no avail.


“[At that time], nobody had kids,” Patton recalls. “They were all home. [Due to the pandemic] none of these camps and programs were [active].”


Hodges and Patton found some recipients through friends of friends in the community, but they still had more scholarships to extend. Eventually, they learned that one of Woodstock Tennis Club’s own members, Ev Mann, was running the sole active summer camp in nearby Kingston. (Mann worked with local government officials through the non-profit Center 4 Creative Education, to safely hold the camp at a recreation center.) Mann invited Hodges and Patton to visit and do a short tennis demo for the campers. Quickly, they found plenty of interest.


“A lot of the kids were excited,” Patton says. “Immediately, they were signing up, writing their names down. Then the problem became contacting the parents! Because of COVID-19 protocols [at the camp], parents didn’t come in. We had no contact with them. They’d drive up, pick up the kids and leave. So that was the next hurdle. But by hook or by crook we finally found kids to participate [in the program].”


Hodges and Patton even went one step further: When one of the potential campers indicated she might not be able to attend because of transportation issues, the pair took turns driving her back and forth each day. 


“That turned out to be the most extended personal connection I had with [a participant],” Hodges says. “It was really quite special because you talk to her in the car each day, and you get to know her and her family.”


The camp, which was held over the course of one week, was led by Woodstock Tennis Club’s head tennis pro Jesse Chalfin. His top objective? Getting the kids to love the sport.


“The main thing I try to instill in my coaches is to remember that although we do want to improve these kids’ tennis skills and their games, it’s still summer camp,” Chalfin says. “The number one thing is that they have fun. Obviously safety [as well]. But we want them to have fun. If they can have a great time and remember that tennis was really fun—and learn a few things here and there—then we have more than done our job.”


Considering the joy of several of the scholarship campers at the end of the week, he and his staff more than succeeded.


“Three of the girls were showing me their strokes,” Patton recalls. “They were telling me how you do it. They were demonstrating: Low to high. They were just so excited. One of the girls wanted to immediately teach her cousin what she had learned. They felt like little pros after just a week of camp.”


And one of the participants loved it so much—and showed so much promise—that Chalfin thought she could benefit from more time in the program. She had initially noted on her registration form that she didn’t have much experience in the sport, so Chalfin placed her in a group with other entry-level players during the first week. A naturally gifted athlete, she was “blowing everyone away,” he recalls, and thought she might like and benefit from a greater challenge. Thanks to more generosity from a Woodstock Club member, Chalfin was able to procure her more time on the court.


“I was standing with Vivienne, telling her I really wanted to get [this camper] in for a second week,” Chalfin recalls. “Vivienne remembered one of our members had said to her that if you need more scholarship money just let him know. He happened to be right by us! So Vivienne [went up to him] and said, ‘Hey, by the way, did you still want to?’’ and he was like ‘Yeah! 100 percent! How much?’”


The extra week proved to be formative, as Chalfin placed her with a more challenging group of juniors. “That’s what I always wanted as a tennis player,” Chalfin explains. “I always wanted to be on the court with people who were better than me. She got so much out of it. Her dad called me and said, ‘This was literally the best experience of her summer.’”


It was so great, in fact, that she’s continued training and practicing independently. A basketball player for her high school in the winter, she plans to go out for the tennis team in the spring.


Overall, Hodges, Patton and Chalfin consider the scholarship program a huge success, and they hope to repeat that success—and potentially build upon it—next summer.


“We had so many ups and downs doing it,” Patton says. “But I felt like a dog with a bone. We were not going to give up. And we learned a lot. I think we can use those lessons for next year.”


Chalfin agrees.


“We call tennis a lifetime sport, and it can sound a little corny when you hear it so many times,” he says with a smile. “But it really is true. It starts when you’re six or seven years old and you’re just given that opportunity. That was the coolest thing that I could have learned having these kids in the camp: We gave them that opportunity. Even if they just walked away with a good memory from it...that was important to me.”

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