First Serve Bridgeport Making Greater Impact Than Tennis
BRIDGEPORT, CT – First Serve Bridgeport is one of 17 New England National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapters, serving the under-resourced youth of Bridgeport through year-round tennis and educational enrichment.
The organization began in 2015 as Bridgeport Community Tennis. At the time, its primary focus was to provide tennis instruction to local schools and nonprofits that were without athletics in their curriculum. While that mission positively affected about 350 kids per year, in 2017, First Serve reshaped its name and brand to create a more all-encompassing and meaningful model.
“What we were doing was nice, but we wanted to move the needle a bit more. We envisioned a more impactful program that focused on the physical, educational and emotional needs of these children,” said Ellen Simmonds, Director of Administration for First Serve Bridgeport.
Simmonds is just one of three part-time staff members at First Serve. She, along with Director of Tennis, Rob Oppenheim, and Director of Education, Kelly Preston, lead the NJTL along with seasonal staff and dedicated volunteers, which includes its Board of Directors.
A largely self-funded organization, First Serve Bridgeport now offers regular personalized tennis instruction multiple times a week at Puglio Park to nearly 100 kids, educational support at the neighboring library, Junior Team Tennis (JTT) competition for its higher-level players, full funding of the Bridgeport Central High boys’ and girls’ tennis teams and a successful college prep program.
“Our volunteers do so much and ask for nothing in return but to help these children,” Simmonds said. “Lots of nonprofits are like that, but others are much more funded. We are lean but powerful; a benevolent organization that really wants to make an impact here in Bridgeport.”
Casey Jones is one of the dedicated volunteers who spends much of his free time training two standout students. Ten-year-old Lohanna Costa, and her younger sister Giuliah, have worked with the recently retired insurance professional and teaching pro to hone their craft. Lohanna received a scholarship to attend the adidas Tennis Camp at Fairfield University in July, where she earned Camper of the Week honors for her positive attitude and vast improvement.
“Casey has really spent a lot of time working with the girls and even sent in the recommendation for Lohanna’s scholarship,” Oppenheim said. “Lohanna is showing a lot of maturity with her technique and the way she strikes the ball. She has good footwork and great instincts on the court. She’s really progressing well and applies what she’s been taught, and credit to Casey, who made it all possible.”
Lohanna, who was also accepted on a full scholarship to attend the prestigious Greens Farms Academy, where she will be entering sixth grade in the fall, was a key part of First Serve’s first ever Junior Team Tennis team to reach the Connecticut State Championships.
Oppenheim coached the five-player team that finished fourth in the 12U Intermediate division in July.
“The State Championship was a great experience for everyone. We’ve had match play, but this was the first tournament they’ve had, so playing match after match was new and exciting for us,” Oppenheim said. “All the kids had positive attitudes, supported each other, and were so excited to wear their new shirts to practice the next week.”
In addition to its up-and-coming JTT program, First Serve is seeing an immediate impact through its college advisory program. Volunteer Education Coordinator, Mary Alptekin, assists juniors and seniors at Bridgeport Central in navigating the college process.
“I really want to make sure all these students have the same opportunities. A lot goes into the college application process that under-resourced students oftentimes don’t understand,” said Alptekin, who owns a college consulting business.
Alptekin ensures that her students are aware of all their options and career paths and don’t miss out on opportunities. She identiﬁes strengths and weaknesses, encourages a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, and helps craft applications and essays to create the most marketable candidate possible.
“I believe that by the time I get to these kids, they’ve done 90 percent of the work. I don’t want to take credit for what they’ve done, I just want to provide them with the resources and info that other students have,” she said. “I get a lot of satisfaction seeing them complete college and change the trajectory of their lives.”
Eleven of the program’s seniors were accepted to college last year.
While First Serve is committed to helping its students grow now, it’s also looking to the future and for unique ways to shape its youth. For the first time this year, the organization entered the USTA Foundation NJTL Essay Contest, with 11 students submitting essays.
Within the next year, First Serve hopes to host a girls’ court, to empower women and girls to maximize their potential. The program would dedicate a court just for girls to play tennis and discuss age-related subjects. The hope is for a similar boys’ program to follow.
First Serve Bridgeport is open to any youth resident of Bridgeport no matter their tennis experience. For more information on the organization, visit firstservebridgeport.org.
- First Serve Bridgeport students at the library following a tennis session.
- Recent high school graduate, Juan Herrera.
- First Serve's JTT team at CT State Championships