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Serving Up Hope starts new program in Chicago-Willowbrook Corner
The Midwest recipients of the 2022 Robert P. and Barbara D. Harris Grants have been announced. Congratulations to Serving Up Hope, Accelerate4KIDS and Bay City Tennis Association! This grant is awarded to organizations seeking to start or expand tennis programming in their community.
Meet Vania King, the retired American pro player who won both Wimbledon and US Open women's doubles titles in 2010.
The following article is a Q&A with King as she discusses her Serving Up Hope foundation that officially launched at the end of 2020. King is the founder and Executive Director whose goal is to provide sustainable tennis programming for underprivileged children from around the world.
Q: What initially inspired you to start Serving Up Hope?
King: I’ve always felt fulfilled giving back. I find it very meaningful. At the same time when I was transitioning out of my professional career, I wondered What’s my next path? It was not easy to find something as encompassing as tennis was for me; tennis was both physically and mentally fully engaging. I was used to being focused on something 24/7 and sacrificed so much of my life for the game, and I did that because I loved tennis and it was worth it. Back when I was on tour if I had an opportunity to do philanthropic activities, I always volunteered because I really enjoyed it. I loved working with kids—it’s so cliche but—kids are the future. So I looked into the nonprofit space because it was important to me.
I got connected to a Legal Aid NGO in Uganda and decided to start Serving Up Hope’s first program there. One of the things I’ve loved about this journey is that while I was playing tennis I was always alone. It was a very lonely profession where I’d have to prioritize myself all the time, but now I get the opportunity to work with other people and I love that. I see how much we can do when we collaborate with each other.
Our first program in Uganda had about 30 kids playing every other week. Now, two years later we have more than 100 kids who have the opportunity to play five times a week. Three of those days we go directly into the community and we set up mini nets. The kids play directly on a dirt pitch. Then twice a week we bus our high-performance kids out to a facility. There are only about 20 courts in all of Uganda, which is one of the reasons why we’re trying to build our own courts there. Tennis is really inaccessible for the kids there. The parents make less than $2.00 a day. Even trying to afford school fees and food is tough. So the kids on average eat one meal a day. There’s no running water and no electricity, but the kids are so talented. They’re so warm and wonderful. It’s amazing to see how tennis has become a lifeline for them — a place of self-esteem, where they can be with friends. They have a safe place there.
Q: Congrats also on your new partnership in the Chicago-Willowbrook Corner area!
King: Thank you! It was a little bit serendipitous! I met a Special Olympian named Caroline O’Hara through a partnership WTA has with Special Olympics. During Covid, Special Olympics created a monthly panel with mentors who would talk about a variety of topics. I was one of the mentors and I met Caroline at one of the talks. During that call, I briefly talked about what I decided to do after tennis. I said I’d started the foundation Serving Up Hope.
Caroline and her mom absolutely adore tennis, and they started collecting donations and equipment on behalf of Serving Up Hope. They have become such great volunteers and advocates. We held a fundraiser earlier this year for our Uganda program to help construct courts there. We also have a few programs in the United States. We currently have programs running in LA and Seattle. Chicago will be our third location. We also have a program launching soon in South Florida.
Caroline and her mom connected me to a local organization called The Community House in Hinsdale, Illinois. Really cool side note: My former doubles partner, Caroline Dolehide, actually comes from Hinsdale. So The Community House was interested in partnering with us because their philanthropic outreach is in Willowbrook Corner. They were excited about the opportunity to offer tennis to their kids. It’s a sport they didn’t have and was definitely not accessible to the kids in the area.
Q: Now serving Up Hope is the recipient of the 2022 Robert P. and Barbara D. Harris Grant.
King: Yes! We plan on using it for equipment. Our goal is to have our Chicago-Willowbrook Corner program running sustainably throughout the year. We train staff and volunteers to run a starter tennis program. They last approximately six weeks, and then some of our partners continuously roll them throughout the year. We’re flexible working with our partners. They know what's best in terms of the community's needs. For now, equipment is the biggest thing for us; getting racquets into the hands of kids.
Q: What will your Chicago-Willowbrook Corner programming look like?
King: It’ll run once a week for an hour each time. The age range is between eight and 13 years old. It’ll be held at an elementary school in Willowbrook Corner. All we need is a flat, hard surface. So we’ll set up mini nets on the basketball courts. We’ll have racquets, balls and fun equipment that also incorporates tennis skills like beach balls, dance ribbons and handkerchiefs! The goal of the program is to help kids build the self-confidence and skills needed to continue playing. Then hopefully if they decide to pursue tennis, they’ll be skilled enough to enter a traditional program. We’re confident our kids are building those skills and feeling inspired that tennis can be accessible. We’re going to provide racquets for all of the participants. They get their racquets after the first session so they can go on and continue to play by themselves.
Q: What do you look forward to with Serving Up Hope?
King: I’m incredibly excited about growth. We’re still a young foundation. The kids inspire me every day, seeing them happy. I’m trying my best to find connections with organizations that might offer scholarships and help the kids with their next steps on their developmental paths. At the very core of it, it’s about the kids. You know, we all have challenges in our lives. Life is not perfectly fair. I know I couldn’t have done the things I’ve done without help. Even though tennis is an individual sport, you have so many people on the journey with you; your coach, your family and your support network. I hope our organization can be that for these kids and the people we work with.
Vania King is the youngest of her family's four children who all played tennis. King and her two sisters followed in their older brother's footsteps who began playing at nine years old. Her brother was inspired to play after seeing a pro athlete, Janet Lee, also a Taiwanese-American, compete at Long Beach City College. In describing her own junior pathway, King credits her parents who recognized the importance of good guidance at a young age. King's parents were immigrants from Taiwan who owned a fish and chips restaurant. The family could afford tennis lessons once a week with nearly every former champion, player and coach their dad could find in Southern California. They spent the rest of their time on free public park tennis courts, playing together as a family.
King is a USTA board member, an ambassador for PTR women’s programming, heavily involved with the WTA and is currently spearheading an Asian-American Pacific Islander Tennis Association. “Gender equity, Asian-American awareness, helping underserved kids... These are all things I would say in a way I’ve experienced myself. It’s personal to me. I feel fulfilled about helping others get through it too."
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