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WASHINGTON —After a long day at school, 10-year-old Andrea Nichelson likes to play tennis. She’s been doing this for five years now, and she loves it.
“What I like most about tennis is the game. It really gets my attention than anything I do. It brings up the fire in me,” she said.
She’s one of about 900 kids in the nation’s capital who benefit from the free services offered by the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF).
The foundation started in 1955 to give children ages 8 to 18 an opportunity to play tennis and gain a variety of skills they need on the court and beyond. Through combining athletic and academic tools, the organization helps kids stay engaged and focused on their studies.
Skills and sense of belonging
In one of WTEF’s programs, coaches go to schools around the city and teach the game to students there. But in the after-school programs, kids come to the tennis facility to learn the game and do many other activities such as doing homework, designing robotics and playing chess.
WTEF’s Operation Coordinator, Audra Bell, says kids are transformed when they commit to the program.
“They learn discipline and they learn mental toughness and all the things that tennis teaches you as a whole, it’s really amazing to see,” she added.
WTEF President Rebecca Crouch-Pelham agrees.
“You’re on the court playing singles, you’re by yourself, and you’re relying on yourself,” she said. “That’s absolutely the exact same stamina, and kind of resilience that our kids need in the classroom.”
Kids in the program are excelling academically, and Crouch-Pelham says all children deserve this type of access to sports and educational services. It gives them a sense of belonging to a community.
“We see older kids coming back all the time to work in summer camps. They are the tennis coaches for young children,” Crouch-Pelham said. “We also have two pros here that grew up in the program and now they work here full time tennis coaches.”
Mike Ragland is one of those two pros. He says joining the program at age 13 changed his life. He credits tennis for keeping him off the street and away from trouble. It also gave him a path in life. Because of his skill on the court, Ragland went to college on a full scholarship and started a career as a tennis coach.
“When they [WTEF] called and said they were building this facility, they wanted us to come back and do the program, I wanted to give back,” he said.
Coaches, in many cases, are father figures for young players. That’s why they’re expected to teach kids more than how to play tennis. They talk to the kids about life, how to carry themselves, and how to behave.
“We give them something that they can go forward with,” Ragland said. “The way you carry yourself in tennis is probably the way you carry yourself in life, to make those life time decisions.”
Life is like tennis
Eighteen-year-old Xxavir Boone has been taking part in the program for eight years, since Coach Ragland visited his school to get young kids interested in playing the sport.
He says the program helped him learn a lot about tennis and life, like the importance of never giving up. He learned that on the court, “because anything can happen during a match.”
“It teaches you to just kind of push through life,” he said. “You might be down right now, but you can always pick it up sooner or later. Everyone here is doing very well in school, and that just has everything to do with tutors and teachers we have here.”
WTEF coaches say a few of their kids go on to become tennis pros. Others excel in other fields and receive full scholarships, while the rest, officials say, get a solid foundation to help them succeed in whatever they do in life.
Faiza Elmasry writes stories about life in America. She wrote for several newspapers and magazines in the Middle East, covering current affairs, art, family and women issues. Faiza joined VOA after working in broadcasting in Cairo for the Egyptian Radio and Television Corporation and in Tokyo for Radio Japan.