One child takes a swing, and the ball hit the net. Another one swings, and the ball sails out of play. Still another takes a swing, and the ball politely touches the court for a hard-fought point. Then the four children rotate spots and the game continues.
Yet the most important thing for these Minneapolis grade school youngsters isn’t solely to learn tennis fundamentals, but to carry with them back into the classroom the same principles they are learning and are being taught on the tennis court, serving as an educational GPS as they move along a path that someday, hopefully, will lead them to college.
These kids are mostly Black, Somali and Latino — the grade schoolers are “Citizens of the Court,” and “The Fort” is composed of junior-high school kids. There’s also a high school program, all three components making up the Tennis2College program sponsored by the Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center (FWTEC) located a block east of the Hiawatha train stop near Fort Snelling.
“We incorporate tennis and life skills,” explained Amira Jama, a University of Minnesota graduate, after she and a female middle-school participant hit balls back and forth to each other. “I love working with kids, and I learn just as much as they learn from me,” she admits. “I hadn’t taken tennis before I started this job, so I’m learning tennis as well.”
Empowerment is tops on the list of teaching objectives, noted Program Coordinator Justin Margolies. “We have empowerment on the
court, but then in the classroom we spend 50 percent of our program time upstairs in the classroom doing a variety of activities building life skills. These are skills that they are going to need to be successful in high school and to get into college.
“We also are incorporating in-school tutoring where Amira and I go into the schools and tutor the youth for half an hour every couple of weeks. It’s all about growth in all areas,” he continued. “There is a lot going on here.”
Margolies also noted that there are two gender-based youth groups (grades 6-9) who meet once weekly. Earlier this year, they toured the University of St. Thomas main campus and visited the Science Museum as planned field trips.
Unlike other local for-profit centers, the FWTEC is a nonprofit tennis center established in 2002, running a multicultural junior tennis program ever since. During the winter months, the courts are under a large bubble that is deflated in the spring, and under its ceiling the sky’s the limit.
“We are so lucky to have a tennis facility that allows us to generate almost 50 percent of our operating income that goes back and helps subsidize the Tennis2College program,” said FWTEC Executive Director Margot Willett. The program is offered free to the students thanks to the center’s regular paying patrons, whose fees, along with contributions from foundations and individual donors, subsidize the youngsters and their families, nearly 80 percent of whom are from economically disadvantaged households.
“The whole idea of this Tennis2College [program] is really a dream come true,” said Willet. “But you can’t do that alone — it’s the people in this building. It’s the board [and] the partnerships that make it possible for all of that to happen.”
Two local programs designed to expose Blacks and other children of color to tennis are St. Paul Urban Tennis, a summer program, and Minneapolis-based Inner City Tennis at King Park. These two programs “are similar but not as deeply into what we do,” noted Willett of her year-round program.
“It is the central part of our mission,” proclaimed Willett, who will be retiring at the end of this month. “We have people here who care not whether they have a good forehand or backhand but [rather] that they feel confident in themselves to stay in school.
“Tennis is the hook,” she stated, “and for some kids it ends up this wonderful lifelong activity. But for some kids, it may be a recreational activity they do while they’re here, and they may not choose to continue to do it or pick it up later. But this place was built to be a facility that serves low-income kids who typically wouldn’t have access to the game of tennis.”
Without these very affordable programs, the youngsters’ after-school activity probably would consist of individual-based, low-energy pursuits, Margolies believes. “If they weren’t here, a lot of the kids would be hooked up to a computer, on Facebook and watching the TV,” he pointed out, “instead of engaging with other youth.”
The Tennis2College program is expected to continue under new FWTEC Executive Director Lea Favor, who succeeds Willett in June. “I am very excited about this opportunity and see FWTEC as such an incredible asset to our community, and I look forward to helping it grow to new heights,” said Favor.
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