Ron Nano is the CEO and President of Legacy Youth Tennis and Education in Philadelphia and serves on the NJTL USTA National Committee. Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month came to an end on May 31, but the conversation about inclusivity and the importance of community will continue. So as we move into June, we’re sharing this essay, which celebrates family, culture, and all that falls in between.
with Ron Nano
My parents immigrated to New York from the Philippines in the early 1970s to pursue their American dream. My late mother, Priscila, was a registered nurse who put her career on hold to care for me and my older siblings, Glenn and Eileen. My father, Carlos, worked as an electrical engineer during tough economic times.
I grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., where many affluent families lived. We were not one of those affluent families.
Our humble, three-bedroom home located on a “double-yellow” road, bordered Great Neck and New York City. I shared a room with my brother until my sister moved into the attic right before she went to college. My family benefited tremendously from the Great Neck Public School District, receiving an education that opened doors for us. At that time, our school was one of the best public schools in the nation. Had my parents landed one block west, we would have attended a New York City public school, which at the time was considered one of the worst in the nation. They have improved significantly since then.
There weren’t many Filipino-Americans in my neighborhood and I was just one of three Filipinos in my grade. Although the school I attended was predominantly white and of the Jewish faith, many of my peers were first generation Americans whose parents emigrated from Iran. Though I was aware of the fact that I was different, I had a lot in common with my fellow first generation friends, which gave me comfort. I would devour the Persian rice dish that my friend’s parents would make, with its fluffy buttery taste and crispy burnt bottom which was the best part. It wasn’t the white rice that I was used to, which I ate with every meal. But it was delicious!
Living on the border of NYC and Long Island, I had the benefit of experiencing and learning about many different cultures. While most of my friends would go home from school to their tree-lined neighborhoods, I was within walking distance of different urban storefronts filled by a diverse group of businesses and to the city’s public transportation.
I had the best of both worlds.
I fell in love with the game of tennis at the age of 9 when my parents would take me to Cunningham Park, in Queens during the summers, where a large group of Filipinos would gather to play after work. I can still hear the laughing out loud and jokes being told in English and Tagalog, which happened during the crafty doubles points that never seemed to end. They absolutely loved tennis, which was infectious. I played with the adults most of the time. Although I was not actually related to any of them, I considered them my uncles and aunts or “Titos” or “Titas”. I called them that out of respect but also because they genuinely cared for me. After we finished playing, they would always ask, “did you eat, did you eat,” while holding a Styrofoam plate and plastic fork and pointing with their lips to the giant rice cooker and enormous pot of Filipino Spaghetti, which was made of banana ketchup instead of tomato sauce and sliced hot dogs instead of meatballs (not my favorite). That group of Filipino tennis enthusiasts were always so positive, rooting for me to do well in my tennis and my studies.
As a young junior tennis player, I trained at different New York City public parks, each having its own ethnic group monopolizing the courts, and at programs similar to the ones offered at LEGACY. I also trained at suburban tennis clubs like the Port Washington Tennis Academy, where John McEnroe trained as a junior under the legendary Aussie, Harry Hopman. My house was two blocks away from the Long Island Rail Road, which would take me directly to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center if I rode west, or Port Washington if I rode east. The train line also stopped at Flushing Main Street, where I would often jump off to get the tastiest Chinese Roast Duck over Rice you’ll ever have – all for five bucks! Downtown Flushing is recognized as Queen’s Chinatown. Sometimes I would ride past the Tennis Center to get off at 61st Street in Woodside where I could get the best Filipino food in New York City. I’d have the “go to” Filipino meal, Chicken Adobo, a tender bone-in chicken dish stewed in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic, or sneak in an order of Lumpia Shanghai egg rolls. So good!
I was consistently around children and parents from different backgrounds. As a competitive junior tennis player, through the generosity of sponsors and caring people, I was fortunate to be able to travel the world and visit different countries. I spent significant time in my developmental years with people from all over the globe who had similar goals as me. I cherish my junior tennis playing days and today I realize how incredibly lucky I was. Not only did I benefit from the overall tennis experience, but I benefited from meeting so many different people and learning equally about our commonalities and differences.
These experiences helped me to value the power of connecting people together. At the University of Michigan, I played on the men’s tennis team. There, I enjoyed connecting my peers by bringing together white, black and brown student athletes, Asian foodie and fashion show friends (yes, I was in an Asian fashion show), with Jewish fraternity brothers (I was an honorary member). My 21st birthday was a sight to be seen — full of bonding, absorbing, learning, and having a lot of fun! In a wishful and perhaps whimsical way, my 21st birthday bash memory is my dream for our nation.
Throughout my journey, I have always been curious about different communities. Through tennis, I have spent time around the slums of Calcutta, but also at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. I ran tennis programs out of a beat-up trailer in the Bronx, but also gave lessons at private residences in the Hamptons. What I found was that each of these communities offered me important learning opportunities. Bryan Stevensen, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and Social Justice activist and attorney, often talks about the power of proximity. He stresses that getting “proximate” to people who are suffering enables you to understand them, to hear things that you wouldn't hear otherwise, to see things that you wouldn't see otherwise. I would argue that it should go all (not just both) ways. That you should do your best to get close to all types of people, and more importantly help others to do the same. I’ve learned and benefited from being in the proximity of different people and cultures and understanding the value of it. I, along with my beautiful wife Lauran, a teacher, who is of Irish and Italian heritage, have the platform to help build an inclusive community, setting an example for our three incredible children, Mia, Claire and Owen.
My organization, Legacy Youth Tennis and Education (LEGACY), is in a unique position to provide valuable and impactful experiences for so many kids and their families. LEGACY is located right on the border of Philadelphia and the Main Line, which means we’re a community that has the ability to bring together many different cultures and backgrounds.
I couldn’t be prouder of the great work happening at LEGACY. Our board of directors and diverse staff work tirelessly to bring creativity and forward-thinking to the table. Every decision we make puts our kids and families first. In 2018, after much hard work and collaboration, we refined our mission statement. Today, our mission is to prepare youth for success through our inclusive community using tennis, education and character programming. This new mission creates a clear road map for all of our stakeholders to live by, and we are laser focused on moving this mission forward, even in the most challenging of times. Our mission guides us in everything we do. It has helped us to create a true pathway of programs, at our Center, in Public Parks, and in Schools in communities throughout Philadelphia, where any child regardless of who they are or where they come from can enter our programs and without barriers see a clear road to success ahead of them.
When kids become a part of the LEGACY family, they feel safe and welcomed, they come from all walks of life and weave in their own unique stories and cultures into our programming. We teach our students that everyone has a story and each story has value. That being in proximity of each other and each other’s communities is an important learning moment. We bring together children who learn and grow through positive new experiences that they would otherwise not have. These memories will remain with each of them for the rest of their lives impacting them personally which will have an effect on the greater community in the future.
Arthur Ashe founded the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL) with the goal of bringing tennis to underserved neighborhoods. We sometimes overlook the fact that he wasn’t alone in this endeavour, he founded NJTL together with Charlie Pasarell, Sheridan Snyder and others. If you have a second, look them up and you’ll find that the power of bringing different people and cultures together to form a community, as was the case of these leaders from different backgrounds, is what could shape our important work and the generations that follow in the years to come.
Now go try some Filipino Pancit or Calderetta and you won’t be disappointed. Stay away from the Balut, it’s not for everyone.
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