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National

In their own words: USTA volunteers on National Park and Recreation Month

July 28, 2021

About two-thirds of all tennis played in the U.S. takes place in public parks. As we celebrate National Park and Recreation Month throughout July, we’d also like to celebrate the many volunteers whose dedication to the sport and to public parks helps to keep our game growing strong. It would be difficult to recognize every USTA volunteer who deals in some way with public parks, among the more than 350 national volunteers from all 17 USTA sections. But we’re pleased to be able to highlight here five volunteer leaders whose contributions, influence and enthusiasm continue to move this sport forward.

Enrique Zarate

I started working as a part-time grassroots tennis coach in 2010 at a public parks facility in Tucson, Ariz., where I live. I enjoy creating an environment where junior tennis players can show up, have fun and, most importantly, feel welcome. Over the years while working at this parks facility, I’ve learned about and promoted the many different programs that the USTA and local venues have to offer—from Junior Team Tennis, to USTA Leagues, to national tournaments and more. 

 

A few years ago, I was extremely active in USTA League tennis, and even was a captain for a few teams. Recently, though, I’ve had to cut back on my playing a bit as things have gotten busy with my job—I’m a health inspector in Tucson—although I hope to step up the on-court tennis activity again in the near future. 

 

But I love this tennis community so much that I not only wanted to continue to be a part of it, I also wanted to try to expand my role. I did that by first volunteering with the USTA Southern Arizona District in 2018, then I became a member of the USTA National Public Parks Committee in 2019, and now I also volunteer with the USTA Southwest section.

 

Volunteering in these different roles has been incredible for me. It’s very rewarding to be a voice for the tennis community, and to be able to offer my suggestions and ideas on how to reach both tennis and non-tennis players about this great game—especially as it’s played in the public parks. I feel the experience I’ve gained by volunteering at the district, section and national levels has been invaluable—not just for tennis, but also for many other aspects of my life. For instance, I’m a 2020 graduate of the USTA’s Emerging Leaders Cohort Program and am using this experience as the Tech Lead for the National Public Parks Committee.

I’m excited to be a part of the Public Parks Committee as we celebrate National Recreation and Parks Month in July. As someone who grew up playing tennis in the public parks, and then teaching tennis at public facilities, I know how important it is for a community to have excellent public park tennis facilities and programs. We need to continue to make sure these programs and facilities remain accessible to everyone. Activities, including tennis, at public facilities and in the parks strengthen communities and lead to happier, healthier residents.


Marcia Bach

I’ve been associated with parks and recreation for more than 50 years—in fact, I continue to coordinate the adult tennis leagues for the Bloomington (Minn.) Parks and Recreation Department, a program that I started 50 years ago! It is heartwarming to be able to provide tennis programs in the community where I live. 

 

Except for four amazing years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’ve been a lifelong resident of Minnesota, living in Minneapolis and Bloomington. Early on, I knew I wanted to contribute to the community through working with park and recs, and I earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in parks and recreation administration. 

 

I was the first Executive Director of the USTA Northern Section, and I’ve also been on the USTA National staff as the Tennis in the Parks Coordinator. In addition, I’m a longtime volunteer, currently serving on the USTA National Public Parks Committee, where I work with so many outstanding individuals who share my passion for the sport of tennis through Parks and Recreation. I’m also on the USTA Northern Hall of Fame Committee, where it’s an honor to help select those who have given so much to the game and are recognized for their lifetime achievements. I truly treasure the lifelong friendships I’ve made in the USTA family! I became involved with the National Public Parks Tennis Association in 1977, when I was elected to the Board of Directors—and I’ve continued to serve on the Board for 44 years! It’s been a lifelong gift to help support the National Public Parks Tennis Championships in cities across the country. Every year the event creates pride in the community and results in park and facility improvements. The first NPPTC was held in St. Louis in 1923, and we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Public Parks Tennis Championships in the summer of 2023 back in St. Louis.

National Park and Recreation Month has always offered a great opportunity to creatively promote tennis programs in the local community. With the support of a loving husband, three children, two sons-in-law and five grandchildren, it has been a privilege to combine my love for parks, recreation and tennis to enrich lives and enhance experiences in the community.

 

(Editor’s Note: Among the many honors Marcia Bach has received for her work promoting tennis and public parks are the USTA Northern Section President’s Award, Minnesota Recreation & Park Association (MRPA) Leadership Award, MRPA Professional Recognition Award and MRPA Dorothea Nelson Award. She’s also been inducted into the Bloomington Sports Hall of Fame and the USTA Northern Tennis Hall of Fame.)


Scott Laakso

I grew up playing tennis with my family on the public park courts in and around Palm Beach County, Fla. We played for fun, enjoying being outside with each other and getting some exercise. I never played on my school teams; I’ve always considered myself a recreational player, not so much a competitive player. 

 

Over the years, though, life has taken its toll on my legs and back, so right now, my enjoyment from tennis mostly comes from a different perspective.

 

I try to make a difference in this sport by volunteering with the USTA in any capacity that I can, applying what knowledge I may have in sports and recreation to helping this sport grow and to bringing the same joy that I experienced on the court to players and nonplayers of all ages.

 

After attending Palm Beach Junior College, I went into law enforcement and became a police officer for 12 years. Then, in 1997, I turned in my badge and attended Florida State University (Go, ’Noles!), where I received a bachelor’s degree in recreation administration and a master’s in sport administration. I then started my second career, joining Roswell (Ga.) Recreation and Parks in April 2002.

 

I like to say that when I was a cop, no one actually “liked” to see me when I was on the job. But now, everyone is happy to come and see me, since my office is in a park.

 

I’m a certified park & recreation professional and currently am the athletic coordinator for the City of Roswell Recreation and Parks, supervising tennis and all sports.

Note, Roswell makes a point of putting “recreation” before “parks” in the official department name because this is, first and foremost, about the people in this community and helping them to realize healthy and happy lifestyles. One of our proudest moments came in 2017, when Roswell Rec and Park was awarded a Gold Medal from the National Recreation and Park Association. 

 

I’ve volunteered at every level of the USTA for nearly 20 years. Currently, I’m in my 13th year as the Chair of the Juniors’ Grievance Committee for USTA Atlanta, one of my favorite volunteer positions. For USTA Georgia, I’m on the JTT Committee. For USTA Southern, I’m a member of the Parks Task Force. For USTA National, I’m a Mentor/Coach for the Emerging Leaders Cohort, and I’m now in my second term as chair of the USTA National Public Parks Committee—my favorite role of all.

 

We go to parks for enjoyment in our leisure, to relax, to compete, to exercise, to socialize—and going to a park for these things is a choice. With the Covid pandemic, tennis was one of the few activities deemed “safe” to play, so new and returning players alike came out swinging in record numbers, and most park courts have been filled.

 

I truly enjoy being able to bring my work and volunteer worlds together, and every day, as both a person employed in the recreation and parks world and as a volunteer in the tennis industry, I work to change mindsets about parks. Parks are not simply a “place” where tennis is played; parks bring much more to tennis than just a location. Many of us learned to play in a park through public recreation programs. Many CTAs and NJTLs call a park their home. Schools often partner with parks to play on their courts and provide programming for P.E. classes, after-school programs or competitive teams. Parks have youth and adult tournaments and host special pops and wheelchair tennis all over the country.

 

If it’s tennis, it’s happening in a public park somewhere! Everything tennis starts in a park, and my goal is to spread that message and to continue to grow all that we do in the parks when it comes to tennis.


Pam Sloan

I love volunteering with the USTA. There are so many valuable resources that help a community and its residents get engaged in tennis—one of the healthiest and most fun activities. As a certified park & recreation professional, I’ve seen firsthand how the USTA has for many years been a terrific platform to help me introduce tennis into the community.

 

For millions of Americans, parks are at the center of so many great memories and experiences. Parks are often our first experience with tennis (as well as many outdoor activities), so I am excited to be celebrating National Parks and Recreation Month—the month of July provides a great opportunity to focus on parks and tennis. Covid put the country in a tailspin and tennis in the parks was one wellness activity that the community could continue to work on. To me, the collaboration between the National Recreation and Park Association and the USTA is critical in growing tennis.

 

I began my tennis journey more than 35 years ago, with Kansas City (Mo.) Parks and Recreation, offering tennis lessons, NJTL and tournaments to more than 1,200 youngsters. I also oversaw the Ashe-Bollettieri “Cities” tennis program in KC, which grew to over 1,000 registered players. I was also a longtime volunteer in the USTA Missouri Valley section, including serving two terms as section president.

 

In 2004, I moved to Northern California and became the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Stockton. I quickly connected with USTA Northern California to volunteer and get involved. On the local level, I’m the president of the Stockton Junior Tennis Patrons, a CTA.

 

I’m on the USTA NorCal section's Board of Directors and, among other assignments, am the chair of the section’s Parks and Recreation Committee. At the national level, I’m vice chair of the USTA’s Public Parks Committee and liaison to the NRPA (I was honored to be on the NRPA Board of Directors from 2012 to 2014), and I also assist with the USTA Facility Assistance Program. 

 

In 2011, I retired from the City of Stockton and became a principal consultant to the Municipal Resource Group in Danville, Calif., where I specialize in operations and management for parks, recreation and community services—so in my job, I’m still very much involved in helping to grow tennis in public parks every day.

From my first job in the 1970s as a director of youth sports, right though my current role as a consultant to communities, I truly believe sports—and especially tennis—is a key to an incredible quality of life. And promoting and growing tennis at the grassroots, particularly for youth, is critical. I’m so grateful for what tennis has brought to my life, and I’m thrilled to be able to give back to this great sport.

 

(Editor’s Note: The many honors Pam Sloan has received for her work in parks & rec, sports and community include AAU Life Membership Award in 1991; Kansas City Park & Rec Exceptional Service Award in 1992; National Public Parks Tennis Association’s Jean and Hollis Smith Lifetime Achievement Award; USTA Missouri Valley Tennis Heart of America Hall of Fame in 2018; and USTA Missouri Valley Tennis Hall of Fame in 2019.)


Ernie James

When I was growing up in Rochester, N.Y., my parents apparently knew that playing tennis offered many benefits and opportunities. They actually forced me to take tennis lessons. At that time, tennis wasn’t all that popular among African-American kids, but being the good son that I was, I learned to play the sport, mostly on public park courts. Soon, though, I went back to playing the other sports that my friends played, too. 

 

Then in college, there was the opportunity to play in co-ed tennis leagues—and that completely renewed my interest in the game! I started playing regularly and soon met a diverse group of guys who played often in a public park in Rochester. As you can imagine, winters can be harsh in that part of the country, so the courts and nets often took a beating. We advocated for the city to get things upgraded and renovated, and it paid off. We soon had good public courts to play on, and we made it all very social—players would rotate in and out, we’d bring grills and coolers to the park, and we just had a great time.

 

I was then introduced to USTA League Tennis, playing on some teams out of the Midtown Tennis Club in Rochester. My job took me to Buffalo, where I continued to play a lot of tennis (and where I ruptured my Achilles’ tendon; but thankfully, I had one of the best surgeons, who worked with the Buffalo Bills, doing the repair). When I relocated to Memphis, I continued playing frequently, mostly on public park courts. In fact, tennis was one of the best ways I found I could meet people.

 

After a few years, I relocated again to Atlanta, living in a new community with a pool and, of course, tennis courts. My new friends in our community decided to join ALTA, and then later decided to play USTA League tennis, too.

My job (I’m a human resources director for a global manufacturing company) then brought me to my current home in Florence, S.C., where I jumped at the chance to play in the public parks. Through that experience, I met Paul Pittman, a true champion of grassroots tennis. Paul started talking to me about a Community Tennis Association, and asked if I’d like to get involved. So, in addition to being an incredibly avid player, I started volunteering at the local level, then I got involved in local tennis leadership with the Florence Tennis Association (which was recognized as 2007 USTA CTA of the Year), serving as president of the FTA for eight years.

 

From there, my volunteer service in the game continued to expand. I was selected to be on the USTA South Carolina board of directors, eventually serving as 2017-2018 USTA SC president. Then I expanded to volunteering with USTA Southern, and am on the section board of directors for the current term. Nationally, I was a member of the CTA Committee, and now I’m in my second term on the USTA Public Parks Committee. I’m also a tennis official and work community and ITA events. And of course, I continue to play League Tennis (I was a team captain in the past), where I especially like playing mixed doubles.

 

My heart and passion lay with tennis in the parks. I’m still a vice president of the Florence Tennis Association, and one of the most satisfying things I’ve done is help push through a new 30-court public tennis center in Florence. Taking advocacy cues from USTA national and Southern, we lobbied our local government for a new facility a decade ago, building a strong case that a large facility would be like a “field of dreams” scenario—build it and tennis players will come. We put together a great public-private partnership to make it happen, had a very generous patron donate land to the city with the condition that it be use for a tennis center, and—10 years ago this summer—we opened the Dr. Eddie Floyd Florence Tennis Center, with 24 hard courts and six clay courts. We did build it, and tennis players continue to come.

 

The center is open to the public, and it’s free to play on the hard courts, with a minimal fee for clay. Plus, we host a number of USTA events and tournaments, so we’re giving back to the economic vitality of the area. I’m just so proud of what we did with this public tennis facility, and of all the amazing support we’ve received. Now, I work closely with Florence’s city tennis director, and Paul Pittman and I are in the initial stages of establishing an NJTL, under the auspices of the FTA. 

 

Throughout my tennis life, I’ve been a strong advocate for tennis in the parks. I have a small dish on my desk full of lapel pins, promoting various things. The one I always reach for and wear is the Tennis in the Parks pin. If you have good public facilities available, tennis is extremely affordable and accessible. The benefits—which go beyond health and fitness, but include all sorts of life skills—will be with you through life. 

 

Apparently, my parents realized this early on. And I’m so glad they gave this gift of tennis to me.


John Stokes

I grew up in Philadelphia, playing tennis on concrete public park courts with steel fencing as nets. The parks were in rough shape, but all I knew was that tennis was exciting, exhilarating, active and fun—and I couldn’t get enough of it. I even joined our neighborhood NJTL, to play as much as I could.

 

Later in my life I moved to Washington, D.C., where tennis is a priority and a focus, and I was in heaven! I was fortunate enough to work as Deputy Director for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, and I saw many opportunities for the growth of tennis—and fortunately it was not a hard sell. We were able to increase tennis programming for children, youth, adults, seniors and adaptive through the parks department. 

 

The crown jewel public parks facility in D.C. is the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, which has received many accolades, including local and national recognition for USTA Facility of the Year, as well as for many of its tennis instructors and managers. It is a space that takes children to another level in terms of education and professionalism, with many of its graduates receiving college tennis scholarships. 

 

I was fortunate, and honored, to be named to the USTA National Public Parks Committee in 2015 and am currently in my third term as a committee member. I’m also a member of the USTA Mid-Atlantic Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and I assisted the section in expanding outreach by organizing the first-ever tennis play area at the massive D.C. Latino Festival—the only sport the festival organizers allowed.

 

I have also been a member of the USTA Leadership Cohort, which has provided me with key training and guidance. 

Meet any great tennis player, and there’s a good chance they’ll have a story about how they got their start in the sport at a public park facility. But tens of millions of people just like me also got our start playing tennis on public park courts—and fell in love with this sport. Public park players are the heart and soul of this sport, and the backbone of this industry.

 

I’ve met people on the courts who have become lifelong friends. And I’ve been lucky to have taken my love for this sport many steps further, by volunteering with the USTA and helping to grow tennis in the parks and advocate for the sport at many levels. It’s hard to think of anything more satisfying.

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