Serving up hope: USTAF's Rally to Rebuild puts community tennis first

Serving up hope: USTAF's Rally to Rebuild puts community tennis first

Challenging moments can bring out the worst in people. They can also expose the finest characters, including tennis program leaders backing underprivileged youth in USTA Foundation chapters across the U.S.

As part of Rally to Rebuild, USTA Foundation Board Members?have committed to match up to $1,000,000 in donations. To learn?more about the campaign, or to donate to the cause, click here.


In April of this year, New York was still the city that never sleeps. But not for the reason Frank Sinatra crooned.

The hustle and bustle of the Big Apple was supplanted by unoccupied streets. Binge-watching news programs and thumbing through Twitter timelines became mainstream, replacing popular nightlife gatherings?at bars and clubs. Skyscrapers and structures contained the dynamic and diverse energy of the five iconic boroughs. New Yorkers were wide awake inside those walls, witnessing their city develop into an epicenter of angst while the COVID-19 pandemic took over.

Families began to wrestle with a wave of unexpected conundrums: is it safe to continue working? Will I lose my job? Who will watch my kids? How will they stay occupied with schools closed? Challenging moments can bring out the worst in people. They can also expose the finest characters within communities.

KCTL

Dave Webley is the executive director of the Kings County Tennis League (KCTL), a USTA Foundation (USTAF) chapter in Brooklyn. N.Y. Unlike most sports-based youth development programs, KCTL transports programming to underserved children in six backyards at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Knowing their students faced inferior living conditions and higher risks of COVID-19 infection, Webley and his staff quickly jumped in to lend a helping hand.

“If there was ever a time that these communities needed extra attention, emotional support and a healthy outlet to sort through these issues and challenges, this was it,” Webley tells TENNIS.com. “Our most immediate concern was checking on the well-being of our students’ and families and to see if there was anything specific they needed assistance with.”

Over the week of April 13, Webley personally delivered 160 bags of groceries to families living in Marcy Houses, Tompkins Houses, Sumner Houses, Brevoort Houses, Ingersoll Houses and Lafayette Gardens Houses. A fundraiser, KCTL Cares, was soon launched with a goal of raising $75,000. Webley’s team nearly doubled that amount, a testament to KCTL’s strong community connection.

The same can be said for InnerCity Tennis, a chapter welcoming more than 5,000 youth at their 12-court indoor center, schools, and city parks throughout Minneapolis each year. Led by executive director John Wheaton, InnerCity Tennis launched its Northside Legacy program in 2019. Hosted in a converted warehouse, the initiative provided kids ages 6-10 access to free tennis, health and wellness activities and reading. The coronavirus crisis put vital projects like this at great risk, yet compelled industries to push the envelope in creative thinking. Wheaton’s team perfectly embodied this in its refusal to lose touch with those they serve.

“Our coaches just love their players, and they quickly devised ways to stay connected with them electronically,” says Wheaton. “They kept in regular contact with their Northside Legacy kids by continuing our Reading is Power program there, giving kids weekly challenges and incentives to read while under lockdown. Some coaches produced videos on tennis and fitness that were regularly shared with our entire list of 8,500 patrons and supporters.”

KCTL

KCTL also turned to virtual programming, providing nine hours of classes each week beginning in mid-April. The reformed curriculum continued to foster exercise and movement, but perhaps most importantly, provided an outlet for children to connect with friends in an interactive experience.

“Each session includes a warm-up as well as units to develop ball skills, footwork, stroke production and fitness,” shares Webley. “There are also open discussions around video analyses of our students’ favorite tennis celebrities and sessions conclude with stretching and meditation. The virtual gatherings are led by program managers with real-time support from staff and volunteers.”

In late May, Wheaton joined New Yorkers in enduring sleepless nights. After African-American George Floyd was killed by a white police officer while in custody, protesters united in response. Riots and looting soon deflected the movement. There was no playbook to follow while this unfolded, once again unleashing true colors across the country.

Following discussions with his core team and board members, Wheaton sent out a newsletter conveying InnerCity Tennis’ adamant opposition to police brutality, racism and injustice. A few days later, the organization led a food and supplies drive, and at their indoor facility, hosted a Stand for Justice event, providing their tennis community an opportunity to mourn Floyd and others who were victims of inexplicable injustices.

“We were overwhelmed with contributions to give to those most directly impacted, including so many of the families we serve. Needless to say, the event was very meaningful to all of us, and it spurred us on to find new ways to help our hurting community,” reflects Wheaton.

“The event provided the opportunity for all of us to contemplate the impact of all that had happened and walk the few blocks down to the George Floyd memorial where he died. We’re being especially sensitive to helping kids process all that’s been happening, and with the loss of so many stores in the neighborhoods we serve, we’re planning another food and supplies drive in early August.”

InnerCity Tennis

InnerCity Tennis and KCTL are just two shining examples of tennis taking the lead in a time of despair, despite facing their own set of hardships. Like most businesses, USTAF chapters have been financially devastated by the pandemic. Endowments have always been crucial to keeping doors open, but today, are more imperative than ever, prompting USTAF to establish Rally to Rebuild.

USTAF board members, led by 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, have committed to match up to $1,000,000 in pledges and donations. The campaign hopes to bring in $5 million to help aid 250 communities providing access to tennis and education to more than 160,000 underprivileged youth in National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) programs.

“A lot of these programs have been shut down; they’ve been hit hard. Families are really relying on these programs for their kids, so we want to get them back on track,” Evert, USTAF’s Chairperson of the Board of Directors, told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. “It just goes along and parallels the message we’re giving out in today’s age about equal opportunity.”

As Webley puts it, this campaign will “impact our ability to meet the needs of our students at a time when they need us the most.” KCTL has seen a jam-packed July, with close to 90 30-minute lessons scheduled for its UpSwing students. This set—made up of 42 invitation-only students receiving match play and strategy from USPTA accredited coaches to help prepare for increased levels of competition—notably engages in community-building projects and discussions centered around the core emotions tennis players must manage during matches. Many have maintained their commitment by attending virtual classes for the past 13 weeks.

“We continue to do virtual sessions. While we are taking programming one month at a time, we will expand in-person tennis programming in August, so more students have the opportunity to get on court,” says Webley.

InnerCity Tennis

In Minneapolis, the three-month shutdown wiped away any earned revenue InnerCity Tennis generates through its tennis center. They reopened in mid-June, and while facing new restrictions on head counts, are on course to serve around 900 players this summer. Treating the situation like a tennis match, Wheaton’s team continues to move forward, taking on changing conditions with an encouraging mindset.

“We adapted quickly, called up most of our furloughed employees, and got our summer programming up and running at our tennis center, at two partner locations, in eight city parks, and at some local school courts where our high performance program is held,” says Wheaton. “We’re fortunate that Superintendent Al Bangoura (of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board) is an avid tennis player and a huge fan of what we are doing in the community. He knows that with most youth sports programs canceled in the city this summer, many kids would be totally inactive and shut-in at home if they didn’t have access to programs like ours.”

Though worrying COVID-19 trends in the U.S. raise questions about tennis programs reopening, the sport is considered by many medical experts to be one of the lowest-risk activities. Before players stepped on courts again, USTA instituted an updated set of health and safety guidelines for facilities and players to follow.

“Tennis is probably the safest sport out there. It has natural safe distancing,” said Evert. “You’re really not in close contact with the players at all. You bring your own can of balls, put your initial on it. When you think about it, you’re not on top of one another. It’s great exercise at the same time.”

“Some?kids in the city can’t go outside on their own, not only because of COVID-19 but also due to the threat of violence in their neighborhoods,” says Wheaton. “Seeing the smiling faces on the kids as they run to the courts for their classes has been one of the joys of my summer. It really takes the edge off all the turmoil and gives me hope for the future.”

Keeping children active is certainly one benefit in getting behind?Rally to Rebuild. Another? Ensuring community contributors like Webley, Wheaton, their support crews, and their wholehearted efforts to leave positive impressions on upcoming generations are not taken for granted.

InnerCity Tennis

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