New England

Growing Through Tennis and Education

James Maimonis, Communications and Engagement Coordinator  |  April 30, 2018

WESTBOROUGH, MA- The national NJTL (National Junior Tennis and Learning) network provides free or low-cost tennis and education programming to approximately 225,000 youth through more than 350 nonprofit safe and welcoming organizations throughout the country. NJTL chapters are a pivotal part of USTA New England’s effort to support underserved youth and to introduce new players to tennis.

“One of the best things about being about being an NJTL is that while there are certain requirements, each chapter for the most part is allowed to develop their program in a way that best suits the needs of their community,” said Chantal Roche, USTA New England Diversity & Inclusion Manager and NJTL liaison.


Danbury Grassroots Academy (DGA) in Danbury, CT and Aces and Academics in New Haven, are two established NJTLs in Connecticut that have thrived and continue to thrive in their respective communities. ADVERTISEMENT Both coincidentally began strictly as tennis programs and have since evolved into reputable education havens.

“We switched our focus once we realized how much more important academics were,” said Lauren Bailey, Executive Director of Danbury Grassroots Academy. “We take in individuals at risk of not maximizing their potential. They don’t generally have great support, so they use our support to excel and succeed at the level they can.”

Danbury Grassroots is a free year round program that serves just over 50 kids. It operates as a “full service” afterschool and summer program with a rigorous curriculum to support students academically, socially and athletically. 

Bailey and Director of Education, Lynn Radford, head the program, with the help of staff and volunteers. The two were instrumental in developing the academic backbone by which the operation swears by, but they also understand the value of providing the kids with unique opportunities they won’t experience anywhere else.

DGA recently opened a new space to supplement the current facility, which will house summer programs such as computer coding, yoga, writer’s workshop and SAT prep, along with current electives.

“We’ve really created an amazing place for these kids,” Radford said. “They’ve built relationships and have made it their own little community. They know the benefits and they what we’re doing and I love seeing the big smiles on their faces and the way they light up every day.”

Unlike many NJTL chapters, DGA has a comprehensive application process and limits its numbers in order to ensure all its students are willing to buy in and work to the best of their ability.

“We’d rather have a greater impact on fewer kids rather than many kids bouncing in and out,” Bailey said. “We’re also heavily invested in the families- We want to know what’s going on at home and we require the parents to send progress reports and reports cards and come in to help out for an hour a month.”

“The parents are all immensely appreciative and respect what we do, and they know how lucky they are to have their kids in program,” Bailey added.

Aces and Academics in New Haven, which is family focused as well, started with a group of parent volunteers. One of those was Sonje Williams, who has also incorporated family into her program in a unique way.

“Most of our kids don’t pay. A lot of the kids we service have financial issues, so we can’t ask them to pay when the parents can’t even pay bills at home,” Williams said. “What we decided to do was allow kids to come for free if their parents volunteer with us- whether it’s tossing balls, picking them up, driving others to and from the courts, we have all kinds of jobs for the parents.”

By doing this, it gives parents the opportunity to learn and experience the sport as well, creating a more likely scenario that they will continue to hit with their kids at home.
Aces and Academics operates out of Edgewood Park in New Haven and Tennis Central in Woodbridge when the weather permits.

“When we started the program, the New Haven High School tennis team was struggling to get players, so we wanted to give more young players the opportunity to play and for this to be sort of a feeder program for the high school,” Williams said.

In addition to tennis, Aces and Academics puts a hefty emphasis on education, providing math and English tutoring throughout the week.

“It’s about being the best tennis player they can be as well as continue their education and go to college,” Williams said. “We’ve had a number of kids that have gone to and played tennis in college, and that’s a really good feeling not just me, but for all the parents here helping out.”

Aces and Academics serves between 25-75 children three to five days a week depending on the season.

“Although it’s a lot of work keeping everything organized, I look at it as just enjoying being out there with the children,” Williams added. “It’s about bringing up a generation of children so they can be productive individuals that can be the best they can be.”

“It’s truly a pleasure to work with both of these great organizations,” Roche said. “It’s fascinating to see them develop our future tennis players both academically and athletically and refine those necessary skills to succeed in life.” 

As part of Provider Appreciation Month, USTA New England is thanking dedicated tennis providers with web features, giveaways, networking summits and webinars throughout the month of April.

To learn more about Danbury Grassroots Academy, visit their website here. To learn more about Aces and Academics, email Sonje Williams at:

To learn more about USTA New England’s Provider Appreciation Month, click here.


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