NJTL 50 for 50:
Craig Ellenport | July 8, 2019
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.
In this installment, we catch up with Amber Marino, executive director of 15-LOVE in Albany, N.Y. How dedicated is Marino to the program? The organization purchased a new building 10 years ago, and the grand opening fell on the day Marino was bringing her newborn son home from the hospital for the first time. Of course, Marino made a pit stop on her way home.
The Amber Marino File
Name: Amber Marino
NJTL Chapter: 15-LOVE (Albany, N.Y.)
Role with NJTL: Executive director
Year became active in NJTL: 1996
When did you first become involved with NJTL, and how long have you been involved?
Amber Marino: I was in college, playing locally, and one of the players on the guys’ team literally was like, “You have to come work for us this summer.” He was already involved with 15-LOVE, and he got me involved that summer, in 1996, and I pretty much haven’t left.
What’s kept you involved with NJTL?
Amber Marino: I was a teacher. I taught middle school out of college, and when I got involved with 15-LOVE, I just noticed that the impact we had through NJTL was just so great. We could really affect and change kids’ lives in so many ways—in ways that I couldn’t do in a classroom for 45 minutes. So it’s just combined all my passions—tennis and working with children. It’s been really amazing. And the people, honestly, are what keep me there.
What do you enjoy the most about it?
Amber Marino: Watching the kids grow up. We have this unique situation in our NJTL, where we have what’s called an "excellence program." We have kids who come through our program, they start volunteering, and then they become our instructors. [I really enjoy] watching those kids make the transition from being a participant to being an instructor, and listening to what they’ve learned, especially their second summer. They’re all excited about it the first time they go out there. It’s that second summer when they’ve realized what it’s like to be on the other side of the net and how much it means to them to give back and impart what they’ve learned. It’s so amazing.
How have 15-LOVE and NJTL affected your life?
Amber Marino: It’s immeasurable. There’s a whole lot of gray area between my personal life and my work life. I just see it all as one. It’s so ingrained in almost everything I do.
The people, the relationships—it’s changed who I am. I’m just so in tune with the inner cities and what’s going on socially. There was a truckload of violence here last summer. Most people can see it on the news and ignore it. I need to be in tune with that. We literally were sending our instructors out to teach for eight hours a day in these parks where there were murders the night before. There were literally 18 within 10 days last summer. Twice we couldn’t get to our sites because the roads were closed while the police were investigating murders. We choose our sites purposely in these inner-city locations. It was just so powerful. That experience alone changed me.
Everybody in NJTL sees this kind of stuff. And I said to our board, “Look, if we weren’t dealing with this, if we didn’t have to make these decisions, that would mean that we’re not in the right place.” We are where we’re supposed to be.
How has 15-LOVE grown through the years?
Amber Marino: When it started in 1990, it was just a summer program. It’s now very much year-round. We see more kids now during the school year than we do during the summer. The program has interesting roots with Arthur Ashe. He came up those first few years before he passed to help with the vision, structure and fundraising at the beginning.
Now, the demand for our program to go into schools is so high. It’s always been tennis and life skills combined. Everything is free, and that’s remained the same. They get tennis and life skills, but now we have all these extra programs—STEM programs, literacy programs. We have a garden at the building, so we have gardening and healthy living. We have an award for humorous children’s book author. Jeff Kinney, the author of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," has been here to speak. We’ve been able to do some really amazing things throughout the years. So it’s grown in a way that’s become more education-based.
The biggest improvement is that it’s gotten to the point where kids who went through the program are teaching in the program. And now we have board members who have come through the program. Our program directors have come through the program. So they’re really starting to lead the organization, and that’s cool.
What comes to mind when you think about Arthur Ashe?
Amber Marino: He’s such an inspiration. I actually just got to meet his brother through my volunteer work with the USTA. We have quotes from him on the walls, and I’ve listened to recordings. For him, it was really all about the education, and so we really pay attention to that. Every once in a while, I think, “Would Arthur be proud of this? Would he be OK with what we’re doing and how we’re honoring his legacy?” Because if that answer is ever no, then we’re in the wrong place.
Pictured above: Amber Marino, left, with one of 15-LOVE's graduates.