Organizer of the Month April 2020
Each month, USTA Eastern selects a passionate advocate who has made exceptional contributions within the community through tennis. This month we honor the leader of a National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) chapter in Rochester, N.Y., who has introduced thousands of children to the sport.
Putting the Wheels in Motion
Theresa Bowick (pictured, right) founded Conkey Cruisers—a Rochester N.Y.-based bicycling program named after the neighborhood street Conkey Avenue—to encourage more exercise in her community. The registered nurse came up with the idea for the organization while jogging around the block one morning. First, a young boy stopped her to ask if she was on parole and running from the police. Taken aback, she explained that she was just trying to stay healthy and then continued on her path; minutes later, another neighbor—an older man—accused her of being the police because “nobody exercises” here.
“In my neighborhood, we can have a jaded view of what exercise looks like,” Bowick says.
Over the years, Bowick has worked diligently to change that lens. With Conkey Cruisers, her vision was to “show something different in the neighborhood” by organizing regular group bicycling expeditions around the area. As a result, she’s seen the community’s interest in wellness climb high. Conkey Cruisers has become so popular locally that it has now organized an amount of bike rides that collectively span more than one million miles; the group recently brought the largest-ever African-American and Latino contingent to participate in Rochester’s Tour de Cure biking fundraiser for diabetes.
But Conkey Cruisers is no longer solely about bicycling. Bowick was encouraged to grow her community movement—and bring kids into the fold—by expanding her operation to other sports. Today the organization has become a full-fledged National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter. The reason she chose to pursue tennis? Simple: Years ago, she won free tennis lessons in a contest on the radio.
“I was really horrible at it,” she says now with a laugh. “But I had fun.”
To get started, Bowick called different local tennis providers in search of support. She also set up a meeting with USTA Eastern Tennis Service Representative Joe Steger. During their chat, Steger mentioned Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the US Open. Despite the fact that the Kids’ Day was just weeks away, Bowick immediately set about trying to get her burgeoning tennis group to attend. Ron Dyson—the owner of the Dyson Tennis Academy in Rochester—promised to pay for tickets if she could find a way to provide transportation for the kids. Sure enough, Bowick was able to procure grant money for trip costs and then leaned on a friend who owned a medical transport company to loan them a van for the six-hour journey to the tournament in Flushing Meadows.
“Ron was actually on his way down there himself when I called him and said, ‘Remember that promise you made me?’” she says with a laugh. “He was like, ‘There’s no way you got enough money to take the kids [in that amount of time]!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I did!’”
The last-minute outing—and all that went into making it a reality—proved to be well worth it, and confirmed Bowick’s decision to branch Conkey Cruisers into tennis.
“I was just floored,” Bowick says. “I was just looking at the children. Here they are at the US Open, learning about something that they’ve only watched on TV.”
Bowick wanted to bottle some of the joy the kids felt in Queens and bring it back to Rochester. She decided Conkey Cruisers would hold the first-ever Conkey Open. After obtaining a permit, the organization transformed Conkey Avenue into a series of tennis courts. The city planning department even stepped up to assist and filled some of the potholes in the street. The event made the local news.
“So many people look at this neighborhood and think negativity,” Bowick says. “We do have issues. But there’s a lot of fertile ground to make things better. That day I looked down that street at all those tennis courts. And then the kids and their families came. To see this street filled with people learning how to play tennis, kids having fun playing tennis—it was simply amazing.”
Bowick and Conkey Cruisers have no intentions of coasting any time soon. Their most recent tennis initiative is also easily their most sweeping: the implementation of tennis in P.E. classes across the entire Rochester City School District. The massive project began after Bowick attended a professional development conference in North Carolina last November. During a workshop, a USTA representative mentioned research that most kids will only touch a tennis racquet six times between kindergarten and high school graduation.
“I could not shake that thought,” Bowick says. “If it’s true that they only touch a tennis racquet six times, that means kids are missing so many opportunities. That means kids aren’t learning about potential scholarships—that’s a huge loss. So I left North Carolina with an assignment for myself: I was going to change that.”
In December, Bowick, along with Steger, Dyson and Jason Speirs, director of the Rochester-based Empire Tennis Academy, met with the district's athletic director, Carlos Cotto Jr. They explained the benefits of the USTA’s Tennis in Schools program, which provides free resources to P.E. teachers who want to teach the sport. For a district dealing with a budget deficit, the no-cost program was “a pretty easy pitch,” according to Bowick. The timeline proved to be the bigger challenge; Bowick wanted to launch by the first week of February to honor tennis legend Arthur Ashe on the anniversary of his death. The team rolled up their sleeves and got straight to work, hosting trainings for district P.E. teachers and ensuring they were registered on the Net Generation website so they could gain access to the free resources.
Sure enough, on February 6, the district celebrated the addition of tennis to their P.E. curriculum with Arthur Ashe Legacy Lives Day. They hosted an opening ceremony celebrating the global impact of Arthur Ashe at one of the schools. (Bowick and the principal of this particular school had a close relationship after singing in church choir together, so “again, it was an easy sell,” Bowick says.) Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren attended the event and proclaimed February 6 Arthur Ashe Day in the county and the city. Tennis pros then headed to other schools in the district to host tennis clinics. Over the course of one day, 2,000 students picked up a tennis racquet. USTA Eastern provided T-shirts and trophies for all the participants.
“This [project] was all about community,” Bowick says. “Not one person could do what we were all able to pull off on February 6. It was like a Navy SEAL operation—it went so smoothly.”
To add an educational component to the festivities, Bowick also hosted a rap contest in which students were encouraged to write a rap about the life and legacy of Arthur Ashe. The winners received tickets to the New York Open in Hempstead, N.Y. on Long Island. Since students formed groups to compete—and some parents traveled as well—a delegation of 23 people from Rochester ended up heading down to the tournament this past February. Bowick again coordinated the transportation. “I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I have enough money in the budget to get them to New York City,’” she says with a laugh. “I had no idea it’s not so easy to get from New York City to Long Island!”
The trip proved to be just as formative and life-changing as the US Open adventure a year earlier. In addition to seeing Times Square and the black courts at Nassau Coliseum, the kids received a half-hour lesson from tennis coaching legend Nick Bollettieri.
“He really dedicated a training session to them,” Bowick says. “These kids didn’t know all the players he had coached. But he was just so genuine and kind in teaching drills. It was so much fun, and it was so much fun to watch them see New York. Every one of those kids came back with the desire to play tennis. And they had never played tennis before February 6.”
Ultimately, that’s why Bowick is so passionate and works as hard as she does to grow the sport in her community.
“You see kids walk a little taller when you bring new experiences into their lives,” she says. “That’s my motivation, my compensation, my inspiration. Conkey Cruisers is a volunteer opportunity to change somebody’s life. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”