Organizer of the Month: May 2020

Scott Sode | May 21, 2020

Each month, USTA Eastern selects a passionate advocate who has made exceptional contributions through tennis. This month we honor an organization who stepped up in a major way to support the community it serves during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Lemons Into Lemonade


The Kings County Tennis League (KCTL), an organization whose mission is to bring tennis to kids living in and around Brooklyn public housing, was preparing for the final two classes of its winter program when the COVID-19 virus swiftly seized the city. One by one, indoor facilities KCTL utilized to teach during the colder months shut their doors. Then the mayor ordered all students in New York City Public Schools to stay home. In the ensuing months, Brooklyn would become one of the hardest areas hit by the virus in the state.


“We had to shut down abruptly, which was very sad,” says Mara Mazza, communications director for KCTL. “But our immediate concern was the wellbeing of our families and our students, and trying to figure out if there was any way we could support them.”


Staff, board members and volunteers quickly swung into action, taking the extraordinary step of individually calling all 269 families that had registered for a KCTL program in the last 18 months. The content of these conversations: How are you feeling? How is distance learning going? How can we help you?


“It’s really important for us to remember that we are a community organization,” says Rob Gerstman (pictured above), a program manager for KCTL. “And as we [had these conversations] and conversed with resident presidents of the six housing developments that we serve, it quickly became apparent that our families could use our assistance.”


As a result of these discussions, and thanks to some generous donations, KCTL launched the KCTL Cares initiative in early April. KCTL Executive Director Dave Webley coordinated with the resident presidents to personally deliver groceries and other supplies to families in all six of the developments.


“We were really excited to kickstart KCTL Cares,” Gerstman says. “We wanted to let our families know that we were there for them, that we could help them out and [bring them] the important items they needed.”


The initiative is ongoing; most recently the organization provided families with another care package that included a Wegman’s gift card. The staff has continued surveying individuals to further assess their needs, and they recently distributed multiple books (courtesy of neighborhood non-profit Brooklyn Book Bodega) to every child in their programs.


Once KCTL Cares launched, the organization then began brainstorming how they could keep their tennis-loving pupils active and engaged from home.


“Our winter session ends in March, and then we usually have about a month before we begin what we call our Upswing program, which is for our most advanced students,” Gerstman explains. “It didn’t take long for our executive director to guide us and say, ‘Well, we’re not going outside for that, so let’s plan this virtually. What would that look like? How are we going to do this?’”


Gerstman and his co-program manager Adam Joyce immediately set about sorting through all the logistics. They researched what digital platform would work best and developed two separate lesson plans: one for the Upswing cohort and one for their larger Saturday morning programming. (KCTL’s Saturday morning sessions, a hallmark of their mission, is a much larger program and doesn’t generally begin until the summer, but the team decided to push up the start date to help serve more kids.) Each lesson, they decided, would be built around a theme (ie: “We’re all in this together”) and contain both tennis/fitness and off-court educational elements. KCTL staffers sent registrants a Target gift card so their families could purchase balloons to temporarily serve as a DIY stand-in for racquets.


“And then we practiced, practiced, practiced [teaching the sessions],” Gerstman says. “Between my OCD and Adam’s intelligence, we really made sure that everything was ready to go. But we also understood that we needed to be flexible. And [we kept in mind] our goals [for the classes]. That we will teach tennis, fitness and off-court learning, but most importantly that we will bring our KCTL community together to build relationships and have fun. That's the key to everything that we're doing.”


The early returns suggest they’ve succeeded—and then some. Attendance in each Saturday class has consistently grown, and enrollment in the Upswing program is up 50% over last spring, when the sessions were obviously held outdoors. Seeing that their programming was clearly filling a need, KCTL staffers again worked with resident presidents to bring even more kids from the developments into the fold. As a result, the virtual Saturday program now includes students who have never set foot on a court before and are learning about the sport for the first time.


“The classes are not all about tennis," Mazza explains. "Obviously we want them to exercise and practice the skills that they've built over the years, but it’s actually more about getting the kids to interact with one another and talk with us and get out their feelings. Kids are craving interaction. I think even we were surprised by how much the kids are really excited to talk to us and talk about what their days are like. That’s been the true gift.”


Gerstman agrees.


“The truth is I had my doubts about virtual programming, but the classes more than exceeded my expectations,” he says. “Our KCTL community is remaining vibrant and together. These sessions are never going to be the same as our time with students on the court, but the teaching moment for these kids is that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And so that's what I hope we can impart along the way. You have to adjust, you have to be flexible, you have to be spontaneous and smart about what you do, and you have to make decisions in the best interest of your communities. And then, at the same time, you can continue to have fun and build relationships. That’s really what we’re focusing on.”


Learn more about the Kings County Tennis League here.

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