BYTE serving up dreams
across the U.S.-Mexico border
Ashley Marshall | February 13, 2019
A first-of-its-kind program that combines tennis with education and operates on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to go from strength to strength.
The Border Youth Tennis Exchange (BYTE, pronounced “bite”) was created in Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales Sonora, Mexico, in 2015 in an effort to bring the border communities together while offering free tennis instruction and academic enrichment opportunities.
In 2018, more than 300 children participated in BYTE programs, with 150 youngsters taking part on a regular basis.
“[The children] love it. It’s really exciting for them," said BYTE founder Charlie Cutler. "It’s incredible when I watch them. It warms your heart. There’s not a huge tennis community to build off of, but as far as a cross-cultural, cross-border exchange, it’s perfect.”
BYTE currently runs programming at four sites—three in Nogales Sonora and one in Nogales, Ariz.—with plans to open a second site in Arizona next month.
It uses tennis as a hook to promote positive after-school recreation in low-income, under-resourced communities.
Each site offers programming two days each week, with each session consisting of a one-hour tennis class and one hour of classroom activities. It’s the only chapter of the USTA Foundation's National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network to operate internationally. The USTA Foundation, like BYTE, has a mission to bring tennis and education together to change lives, and it supports the network of programs of NJTL that reach more than 225,000 under-resourced youth throughout the U.S.
Thirteen-year-old Marilu Portillo said BYTE has helped her make new friends.
"When I look behind me, I see—well, of course, I see the border wall and all the wire they just put, and that makes me feel kind of sad," Marilu told CBS This Morning. "We're all the same, and we could be friends and have fun.”
On the Mexican side of the border, BYTE runs classes at Centro Juvenil Don Bosco, a youth community center run by the Salesian church; at Desarrollo Integral para la Familia, a municipal children's shelter which offers temporary accommodation for children whose families are in legal proceedings or have been removed; and at Casa Hogar para Niñas la Madre Conchita, a private, non-profit girls' orphanage that is run by a team of nuns.
In the U.S., BYTE has run classes and tennis lessons for the past three years at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Cruz County, the only facility-based, low-income, after-school program in the city.
In March, BYTE will expand to a new site at Anza Park in conjunction with the Nogales Housing Authority, an organization that oversees low-income housing in the city.
“The challenges the girls face are basically acceptance and having confidence in themselves,” said Maria Gpe Rueda, a volunteer at Casa Hogar para Niñas la Madre Conchita. “I believe the BYTE program has come to reinforce their security and self-esteem.
“Definitely, for our girls, despite the disadvantages of not living in a family, they are being presented with the value of seeing models, groups and institutions that look after the needs of others. I think the girls of Casa Hogar are growing up learning from this example of caring for others.”
The programs are mainly aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old, but it has welcomed children as young as 6 and as old as 18. At each site, there are two staff members dedicated to tennis activities and two more who focus on academics and provide a tailored curriculum.
Cutler said BYTE has three main goals: To provide after-school programming, to develop curricula to help children interacting across the border and to dispel myths and negative connotations surrounding border communities.
“We try to instill in the kids that the program they’re a part of is bi-national and cross border and that the kids on the other side of the border are doing the same projects,” Cutler said. “We’re trying to provide a free service to the community for kids that don’t have many opportunities.
“Hopefully we can also present a more human-centric narrative about the border, especially when so much you hear is so divisive and often misleading. We’re trying to show that a kid in Arizona and a kid in Mexico look the same and they’re just trying to play tennis. Most of the people on both sides of the border are just trying to live their lives and provide the most opportunities they can for their kids. The fact they live in a dynamic, politically relevant region is not their fault. They’re trying to do the best they can with the hand they’re dealt.”
Cutler lives on the U.S. side of the border—he can look over the border into Mexico from a window in his apartment—and was inspired to create BYTE while he was studying for his Master's degree in international human rights.
A former collegiate tennis player who played on the Futures circuit, Cutler spent a summer doing research on the border in detention centers that hold refugees. While he was writing his thesis, he connected with a Mexican community foundation and started running tennis programs for some of the organizations in its network.
Cutler taught 12 lessons that summer and knew right away there was a need for such an initiative.
In addition to the free tennis classes BYTE offers, the academic programming has proven equally popular in both communities, which are less than a few miles apart but separated by a 30-foot-high slated wall topped with razor wire and a border-control checkpoint.
BYTE has developed its own curriculum over the past three years. Its flagship program is digital storytelling, a 12-week program that uses technology to help each child tell his or her own story. The curriculum combines photography and videography with scriptwriting, audio recording and digital editing to help each student produce a two-minute digital story detailing their life through images, video and voiceovers.
Academic coordinator Jacksubeli Gonzalez says the stories are an important way to show the children, especially the girls, a new perspective.
“BYTE can change the opinion many have that girls are not good at sports, that girls can’t access science or technological fields," Gonzalez said. "What BYTE does is deconstruct those narratives and create new ones.”
In addition to the digital storytelling curriculum, created in conjunction with Story Center in Berkeley, Calif., BYTE has also created site-specific educational modules tailored to each community. At the girls orphanage, for example, there are gender violence workshops. At the Boys and Girls Club and youth community center, there are modules focused around behavioral intelligence and emotional awareness.
“We try our best to do as much cross-border exchange as possible,” Cutler said. “We do a lot of digital exchange, where we make videos on one side and show them on the other side. We’ll have the kids write notes to each other. We’ll have kids on one side start a project and have the other kids finish it. And we hold three or four major events a year, where we bring the kids across the border.”
Last December, BYTE hosted a pop-up tennis event in Sonora, where Americans went to the sister sites in Mexico to play tennis with their peers. And earlier in the year, BYTE worked with the Department of Homeland Security, the American Consulate and U.S. Border Patrol agency to secure humanitarian parole permits—essentially one-day visas for Mexican children without passports—to enter the U.S. and be exposed to programming on the northern side of the border.
BYTE took the group of American and Mexican children to a University of Arizona tennis match in Tucson and visited the college’s innovation and tech lab.
“We’ve found it’s really empowering for them, and it’s something they look forward to,” Cutler said. “It’s great to see them interact.”
As part of the growing partnership with the University of Arizona, the school will soon start offering formal four-credit internships through its school of education.
As an NJTL chapter, BYTE has receives funding, technical support and one-on-one guidance from the USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the USTA. In 2017, BYTE received one of the Foundation’s three-year capacity building grants, and in 2018 alone the Foundation awarded BYTE $55,000.
"The USTA Foundation is BYTE's largest financial contributor and has offered invaluable strategic support that has helped BYTE to develop its operations and expand its ability to create innovative opportunities for kids on both sides of the border," Cutler said. "As a formal member of their current capacity building cohort, BYTE has worked closely with USTA Foundation account managers to strengthen local partnerships and connect to national resources."
BYTE also receives funding from the USTA's Southwest section which last year awarded the organization a small innovation program grant.
Added Cutler: “They’ve been great to us. They’ve been a huge connector to the tennis world. They’ve taken us in and helped us promote the program and find opportunities for resources and grants. They’ve been instrumental with communicating what we’re doing in Nogales with the larger tennis world.”
Those are just two of the partnerships that have helped BYTE become so successful. Among the other leading U.S.-based partners are the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation; the Border Community Alliance; Southeast Arizona Health Education Center; Mariposa Community Health Center; and the Adolescent Wellness Network.
In Mexico, BYTE has formed a number of beneficial bonds with organizations, including Foundation Empresariado Sonorense, a Mexican community foundation that oversees a network of 70 Mexican non-profit organizations in the community; and IMFOCULTA, the Nogales Sonora cultural center.
“I began working here as a volunteer, wanting to contribute time and support to the girls,” said Bibi Rueda Flores, the administrative director for Casa Hogar para Niñas la Madre Conchita. “The organization’s work is important because we try to change their lives for the better.”
For almost three years, BYTE has done just that, changing lives one forehand and one digital story at a time. For the students in Nogales Sonora and Nogales, Ariz., they’re writing their own narratives about border communities and building lifelong bonds with youngsters across the line.
While some people are building walls, BYTE continues to help tear them down.
Carolina Iniguez from Mexico perhaps said it best: "We can be just friends, and we aren't enemies just because we are from different places.”