Rochester NJTL chapter keeping Arthur Ashe's legacy alive
On two wheels or tennis courts, Theresa Bowick of Rochester, N.Y. has channeled the spirit of Arthur Ashe to advocate for bettering the lives of people in her community.
Since 2012, the registed nurse has been the executive director of Conkey Cruisers, now a USTA Foundation NJTL chapter, which promoted a people-first approach to encourage a lifestyle of wellness in the area. The organization came from humble beginnings, born thanks to Bowick's own personal journey for better health, and a weight loss of 75 pounds.
Quickly, though, Bowick learned that not everyone in her community shared her mindset, and she felt compelled to act.
"In my quest to get healthy, I was starting to jog around my neighborhood to maintain the weight loss. One day, I was jogging around and this kid yells out at me, 'Hey, lady, are you on probation?' and I stopped in my tracks. I looked down to see if I was wearing anything that could've somehow pertained to law enforcement. I couldn't figure out why this kid would ask me that... so I asked him, and he thought I was running from the police. I kept going, but it just bothered me. That kid could not have been more than 10 years old.
"Later on my run, about 30 minutes later, I ran into a friend of my dad's and stopped to talk to him. This gentleman approached us and said, 'Don't be fooled by her, because nobody exercises in this neighborhood.' And I said, 'Okay, Lord, what's the assignment?," she continued, armed with an infectious laugh that permeates through her words when she speaks about her volunteer work.
"There must be something here that you want me to do.' I wanted to help people get healthy. I named the program after the street that I was jogging on because I said, if this is the image of the neighborhood — that nobody exercises here, that people think you're running from the police if you are — I'm going to flip the image of this neighborhood. When you hear the word Conkey, I want it so the first image in your mind isn't something bad."
In the first year, Bowick registered over 100 people for community bike rides to promote local health and wellness. But soon, she wanted to expand Conkey Cruisers to help kids do more. Recalling a positive experience years earlier in a free tennis lesson she'd won in a radio contest, she decided to commit to forehands and backhands. With the help of the USTA Eastern section; Joe Steger, the section's Tennis Service Representative; and two local pros, Ron Dyson, owner of Dyson Tennis Academy and Jason Speirs, director of the Empire Tennis Academy, Bowick added tennis events to the Conkey Crusisers' calendar in each of the past two years.
"We have some really weird invisible lines in Rochester. Where the tennis courts sit in conjunction to where the bicycling program operates, it's not even a mile away, but the kids won't go down to the tennis courts," Bowick said. "In my neighborhood, there's a lot of basketball and football, but I wanted to do something that's not as traditional for Black and brown kids."
In 2019, following a group field trip to Arthur Ashe Kids' Day and the US Open, Bowick and the Cruisers organized the inaugural Conkey Open — truly, a street fair for tennis. The event made the local news as the thoroughfare was transformed to host matches.
"It was the most phenomenal thing I'd ever seen in my life," Bowick said. "I stood at the corner on Conkey Avenue and looked down the street at all the tennis courts we'd set up, and it was just amazing. There were so many kids. I was just so grateful for the USTA and everyone for believing in me that we could not only make it happen, but make it happen in this neighborhood."
After attending a regional conference, where the USTA's Tony Stingley presented on tennis in schools, later that year, Bowick was struck with another idea. Learning from Stingley that matriculated students from kindergarten through the 12th grade would only touch a racquet inside their school walls six times or less on average, Bowick decided it was time to take tennis from Conkey into the classroom.
With help from the district's athletic director, Carlos Cotto, Jr. and the squad Bowick had already put together, the group worked to train teachers on the USTA's Net Generation provider programming. She was also inspired to use the sport as a further educational opportunity for Rochester youth.
"I couldn't shake those numbers when he said them. It was almost like I was back with that little boy again who'd asked me if I was on probation," she said. "I said, 'I'm going to change that stat.' In addition to bringing tennis into schools, I wanted a way to honor Arthur Ashe. The reason why Conkey Cruisers is an NJTL is because Ashe and his friends put this all together."
The inaugural Arthur Ashe Legacy Day was held on Feb. 6, 2020, as it was officially proclaimed as such by both Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Rochester mayor Lovely Warren. Over the course of the day, 2,000 students across local schools picked up a tennis racquet in their P.E. classes, and were provided with t-shirts and trophies.
"We had an opening ceremony and closing ceremony and assigned pros to go through schools in the district all day," she said. "We wanted the day that Arthur Ashe left us to be remembered as a day that people are still playing tennis, and that the concepts behind the founding of NJTLs still lives on in his legacy.
"When we look back at the results of that day, we have over 30 schools in our Tennis and Schools program, and thousands of students introduced to both tennis and Arthur Ashe."
Bowick intended to use the event as an official starting point to not only expand the Tennis in Schools effort in Rochester schools, but also to lay the foundation to build middle and high school teams. Though those plans have been put on hold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, she hopes to be able to continue towards these goals in the future as a part of larger district revitalization programs.
Over the past decade of Bowick's ever-evolving life of service, it's clear that one thread has remained constant: the persistence she's shown, and the passion she has to make a difference — traits she says she inherited from her philanthropic parents and honed through fishing with her father.
"I learned in life that if you're not catching what you want, you need to change bait. There's so much poverty and there's so much hurt in the community that I live in, and I really believe that the work we do with Conkey Cruisers with wheels and racquets can really be quite life-changing. I've seen it," she said.
"There have been times where we go to the park to set up in the afternoon to start the program at 6 p.m., and there are kids that are already there waiting for me. They get hope and they get love. For those few hours a day that they're with us, they can just be kids.
"I like to use one of Arthur Ashe's quotes — 'Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.' That quote is perfect for me, because it reminds you that you don't need to change the world in a day — just do what you can."