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Positive Youth Development through Tennis

Molly Doehrmann | May 07, 2021

May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! To celebrate, we’re sharing the stories and experiences of AAPI tennis professionals. People like The ACE Project Executive Director Susan Klumpner, whose eight-year-old organization has lifted families across Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit. Also a clinical social worker, Klumpner’s aim has always been to create a more positive narrative for children.


During her interview, Klumpner addressed the disturbing discrimination and violence towards Asian-Americans in the United States. “Those stories need to be amplified. It’s happening to our brothers and sisters who play tennis.” Klumpner’s message helps us to remember the emotional connection between sport and humanity.


Susan Klumpner co-founded The ACE Project in 2013 — and spun around an acronym that used to mean ‘adverse childhood experiences’ as studied by Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. Instead, for nearly a decade, Klumpner has reframed ‘ACE’ to mean ‘active children excel’ and acknowledge the power of positive youth development. It’s also a double entendre for the point-winning serve!


Nadine Burke Harris’s healthcare practice focuses on childhood trauma and how it affects adults later on. Rather than focus on those potential negative outcomes, The ACE Project is based on a strengths-based model — positive youth development.


“There’s probably a shift in how we talk about mental health,” Klumpner states. “As a high school student, I had a social worker. I was identified pretty early on, and my high school social worker clearly influenced the field I chose and the fact that I became a school social worker.”

In undergrad, Klumpner studied psychology then received her Masters in social service administration. She worked as a school social worker for several years and started The ACE Project while also volunteering with the USTA. Most days before noon, Klumpner had counseled 10-15 kids, met with families, some who experienced homelessness, conducted psychosocial assessments, and consulted with teachers.


When Klumpner was growing up, it was that feeling… of hitting a tennis ball against a garage door that made her feel comfortable.


“I have fond memories… As young as maybe or eight or nine, all the way until I was 14, taking a tennis racquet and practicing hitting the ball. Forehands… backhands… I would spend hours doing that.”


Klumpner admits she didn’t really know how to hit a forehand, or backhand, or serve.


“It was so fulfilling and engaging to just practice. I did it so much that my parents had to replace the garage door,” Klumpner remembers beating the paint right off.


“The way that made me feel as a child really feeds into the reason why I started The ACE Project. Something about the rhythmic practice of hitting the ball against the door was inherently soothing for me. It wasn’t until I was aware much later that for folks who have experienced traumatic events, there’s something that’s inherently soothing about the repetitive, rhythmic, patterned experience of sport.”

Once Klumpner began high school, she started training formally with the high school team. Her father was a tennis player who always encouraged curiosity towards the sport. “But private lessons, regular private lessons certainly were not accessible to me,” Susan remembers. 


How’d she get good? “I just so happened to have an incredible tennis coach."


Coach Pete had been instructing tennis for nearly 15 years and continued another 15. According to Susan, he's retired now and moved to Colorado where he’s a national USTA player who “cleans up” on the tennis court.


“He brought me, essentially a newcomer to the sport, all the way from I think number four singles [junior varsity] my freshman year to number one singles [varsity] my senior year.”


Klumpner attributes a lot of her gained skills to Coach Pete. She says, he pushed her to attend summer tennis camps and helped her family afford it. 


“Tennis is an expensive sport.”


As Klumpner was learning to play, she started coaching younger children. By teaching lessons, she was able to supplement how much summer camp cost, and by the time she was a sophomore, she was working with kids 10 and under. 


Coach Pete completely trusted Susan’s skill, but her senior year, she had zero intention to play in college.


“I didn’t think it was possible,” she says. “I didn’t think it was an attainable goal… The girls who I knew played college tennis played division one, got full scholarships for their tennis ability, and I was not at that level.”


Klumpner laughs looking back at it all. She essentially walked onto Lawrence University’s team, and it was a happy surprise knowing she could play tennis while prioritizing a rigorous academic schedule.


When she walked up to practice during pre-season, she expected to be the worst person on the team. Never happened. Instead, she played number one singles.


Sophomore year, her and her doubles partner won the conference championships — a first for Lawrence University in nearly 20 years. After one of the most winningest seasons ever, Klumpner played again her junior year, then transferred to Grinnell College her senior. Grinnell was used to finishing first during conference, and Klumpner was talented enough to play number two her last year.

School nowadays is completely different than Klumpner's university experience. Until just recently, most schools were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic with children learning and exercising from home on their computers. 


As an organization, schools and park districts are critical social infrastructures The ACE Project works through. This last year, all of ACE’s programming in Baltimore and Detroit went virtual, with both asynchronous and synchronous opportunities.


In March 2020, when in-person programs were halted in Chicago, the coaches who work for ACE were determined to stay involved in their kids' lives. 


Through a parent-mentor program, ACE began doing wellness checks on students and their families: encouraging folks to check-in on their neighbors, seeing if anyone needed a ride to or from the grocery, seeing if anyone was out of personal protective equipment (PPE), and creating schedules to take folks to their doctors' appointments.

The ACE Project amassed huge amounts of PPE (masks, sanitizer, Lysol, etc.) and distributed it out to the community. What also became clear was that food insecurity was a huge issue. 


Klumpner and the staff at ACE have been working to create an emergency fund, not just for the families they serve, but the staff too experiencing tremendous economic hardship during the pandemic.


“Losing family members… Family members getting sick…” Klumpner trails off. “And at a disproportionately high rate because the folks who work our program are primarily people of color who are disproportionately affected by Covid.”


This summer, when The ACE Project runs its annual summer camp, ACE will be providing a lunch bus for the kids to visit. Every other day, they'll be able to take home with them two meals, and The ACE Project is currently in conversations to start up a client choice food pantry in the Riverdale neighborhood.


“Here we are going from being a tennis program to being a comprehensive program. Add tutoring and mentoring, and social and emotional skills. We have social workers working our programs… and now adding a food pantry!” Klumpner shakes her head in disbelief. “It’s really evolved into this organization that meets the community’s needs, and it all started because of folks organizing around tennis.”


It’s important to Klumpner that tennis be made into a more inclusive sport around ability and access and along racial and ethnic lines.


“It’s never been just about tennis. Social justice has always been an issue in tennis.” 


“All of The ACE Project’s after-school programs are staffed by people who live or work in the school community because it’s really important that your coaches are reflective of the kids that you’re teaching."


Susan, herself, identifies as a mixed race, Filipino-American who plays tennis.


“One of the identities that I bring in, is that I’m an athlete. Every time I show up to the tennis court, I am a mixed-race, queer woman who plays tennis. There are people who are having completely different experiences with this sport based on the intersection of their identities. I notice when I’m the only POC on the court and I notice when all the POCs are on the same court.” 


Klumpner says, she often wonders if she’s done enough for Asian-American Pacific Islanders in tennis. “What’s happening to Asian-Americans regarding Anti-Asian bias, discrimination, and violence… those stories need to be amplified. It’s happening to our brothers and sisters who play tennis.”


Looking back at her childhood, Klumpner has fond memories of watching Filipino Americans play tennis on local courts.


“When there wasn’t structured opportunities for play, there were always like— and again, this is because of where I grew up, there’s so many AAPI brothers and sisters in the west suburbs. There would be like 10 to 15 usually Filipino men, and there were a few Filipino females out there, but Filipino men that just hung out on the public courts all day,” Susan shares, “you could just walk in and play… They created their own community, as like Filipino elders. And while they may not have played USTA, they were absolutely promoting the sport.”


Susan remembers coming back from college one day and showing them her new skills.


“They were just like another family.” 


In the days ahead, Klumpner is excited for both Detroit and Baltimore's ACE chapters to welcome back in-person tennis play opportunities, and she’s happy to continue The ACE Project’s relationship with the USTA/Midwest Tennis and Education Foundation.


“They gave us our first $4,000 grant in 2013 and look how much that’s grown. Look how many families and lives we’ve been able to collectively impact.”


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