Innovative youth-led organization changing the game for tennis in Ohio
Head to Dublin, Ohio and you’ll find that an old saying couldn’t ring truer for the tennis community there: “… A child shall lead them.”
The Dublin Tennis Outreach Program, colloquially known as Dublin TOP, is a fully youth-led USTA Foundation National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapter that has been operating for the past three years. While it is similar to the more than 285 other organizations around the country that share an NJTL designation and introduce under-resourced youths to tennis, Dublin TOP is unique in the space for one major reason: Its coaches are exclusively high school-aged volunteers.
Dublin TOP was founded in 2019 by William Sun, and it has since grown to have nearly a dozen students on its leadership board who help guide the tennis development of children in kindergarten through fifth grade, both in Dublin and the surrounding communities. Now finishing his freshman year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., Sun says that the idea for Dublin TOP first struck him when he was competing for Dublin Coffman High School, and he met students from other schools who hadn’t had the opportunity to start playing tennis before they hit their teenage years.
“We had one away match at a school about 30 minutes outside of where we lived in Dublin, which is a rather affluent community,” Sun recently recalled to usta.com. “I just realized that at that school that they didn't really have the opportunities that we usually had, especially at a place like Dublin. The kids, they really loved playing the sport. You could tell they were having fun with it, but the equipment definitely wasn't the best. The courts weren’t in the best shape. … But they were having fun with it.
“I just had a conversation with one of them, and they were describing to me how opportunities there as a kid playing tennis where they grew up weren't the highest. … I basically asked them, ‘If you were able to start earlier, would you have?’, and they were like, ‘Yes, of course, 100%. It's just tennis is a very expensive sport; equipment is expensive, clinics are expensive, getting a private teacher is very expensive.’ I think that really planted a seed.”
Free tennis lessons tacked on to a free-lunch summer program at Daniel Wright Elementary School where Sun volunteered was , one he said couldn't have had more than "five or six" kids; the generosity of Dublin Bridges, a local nonprofit, gave Sun the funds to purchase racquets and red foam balls for the students to use. Despite the small crowd, it was a hit with both the pupils and teacher.
“I really got to connect with these kids and hear their stories, hear about where they're from, their families, their background. I really just fell in love with teaching [tennis],” Sun said. “At the end of the program, I gave out personalized cards which told parents that I taught their kids tennis at the free lunch program, and if they wanted to continue these free lessons, to please contact me.
“I gave out, at most, 10 cards, and soon, I started getting calls from parents saying that their kid enjoyed tennis and wanted to keep doing it. … They had family and friends that they knew also wanted to trial [tennis] but didn't have that money to put them in a clinic or something like that. Slowly but surely, more and more people started coming to me.”
Dublin TOP grew exponentially from there. With help from his mentor Loren Scully at the Dublin branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Sun filed paperwork to make the organization a registered 501(c)(3), which allowed it to start programming on the city's outdoor public tennis courts. He later drew up a similar partnership with the Racquet Club of Columbus—where he himself first took tennis lessons—to use its indoor courts. As the organization gained a foothold by word of mouth, more student leaders soon joined in, eager to get involved and fulfill service obligations for school organizations including the National Honor Society.
Two of those leaders are Isaac Frank and Bryan Li. Both 18 and now graduating themselves, they got involved with Dublin TOP as volunteers because they grew up playing tennis. Their role quickly grew on the executive board, and they were among those who helped to guide the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic; programming went virtual, with games created to help kids learn different tennis terms, and tutoring sessions were also held on Zoom.
The experience, they say, taught them what they could never learn in a traditional classroom.
"[We're] seeing our kids grow up and also seeing them get better at tennis," Frank, the organization's most recent executive director, said. "Some of our kids that have been to the first clinics are still here. That was over two years ago, pre-COVID. Online and virtual, they stuck with us. ... Before, they had never held a tennis racquet, and then all of a sudden, they're able to rally. It's just incredible to see their progress.
"But another thing that I think is a little bit underrated is seeing the growth of our volunteers. ... I know for me personally, I've seen people who have come into the organization; we interviewed them to make sure that they were okay to be a coach or a tutor and they were shy, timid. They've become outgoing, they've become leaders; we've given them leadership positions and they're just taking off from there. It's extremely rewarding to see that duality. By helping the kids as the high schoolers, we're helping ourselves. It's a two-way benefit."
"Every time I'm on court if I'm teaching, I always look at the kids. After they hit a ball, they look back to their parents and they're both smiling. It's fun to see that happen," Li added. "Another one of my favorite things is not only the relationships that I've built with the kids, but also with the other coaches and the other volunteers. I feel like definitely over the past two years, we've gotten super close, especially through having to do online Zooms every week during COVID. It really made us go through all the ups and downs together, made us figure out how to work with each other and how to have fun, while doing it all together."
And that, Sun says, is the embodiment of his vision.
"Because of how sustainable it is, because it's high school-oriented, I think that's what really makes this organization so special," Sun said. "There will always be high school tennis players. Almost every high school will have a tennis team, and whether that be at a very high skill level or a low skill level, they'll have some kind of introduction already to tennis. You'll never run out of coaches as long as you keep it high school oriented. There will be plenty of elementary school kids whose parents would love for them to learn.
"... I think when I'm older, I graduate college, when I'm in the workplace or whatever it is, I want to look back on this. I want to be able to see Dublin TOP is still thriving, still sustainable, still being run by high schoolers. And I want to see it everywhere. I want to see it as an opportunity for all these kids. And I do believe it will happen. I don't know how soon, but ... I hope that in four or five years when I graduate, it's still a thing and it's bigger than ever."