It’s three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, and there’s something in the lobby of Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center (FWTEC) that you might not find at another tennis club: barely controlled chaos. Kids are streaming through the front doors, and the exuberant energy they tow along is almost palpable. They’re high-fiving staff and racing off to the bathroom; someone produces a bucket of footwear and people start loudly trading in high tops and boots. There’s shouting; there’s a lot of laughter.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The writer does part-time communications work for Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center.
“It’s loud,” says longtime FWTEC patron and youth program volunteer Dee Dolny, “but that’s kids.”
For Margot Willett, the chaos is a happy symbol of a dream turned reality—though she wouldn’t phrase it so melodramatically. Willett’s last few years as executive director at FWTEC have been full of such markers. Hiring new staff, watching new students arrive for after-school programming, getting a generous grant from the McKnight Foundation: all were signs that Tennis2College, the youth outreach program she and her colleagues have been working to finalize in some form since 2003, is finally coming to maturity.
Ten years ago, FWTEC started the Tennis2College ball rolling when it brought in a small group of underserved inner-city kids for after-school tennis and life skills programming. Since then, the program has steadily expanded and now includes 3 distinct after-school programs: Citizens of the Court (3rd – 6th grade); The Fort (6th – 8th grade); and Wells Academy (9th – 12th grade). It also offers two evening leadership groups (Girls Squad and Boys Leadership Team), Saturday tennis and tutoring for middle and high-schoolers, and an afternoon summer camp.
All told, the program will serve over 350 students this year.
For every one of the 350, Tennis2College aims to serve as a support-system to help them thrive in school and ultimately work towards graduating with a strong post-secondary trajectory. While every separate program within Tennis2College functions a little differently, each session splits kids’ time between the court and the classroom. In class, students complete life skills activities, mostly interactive and discussion-based.
“One of my biggest successes was a youth telling me that she used a strategy from our self-esteem lessons in a situation at school,” says Amira Jama, an Americorps Public Ally who helps lead The Fort and Girls Squad. “When the youth can comprehend and use these lessons in different aspects of their lives, it’s a big success.”
As students move up through the grades, more focus goes to honing academic skills. For the middle-schoolers in The Fort, there is an in-school tutoring component that brings T2C staff in to meet individually with students every two weeks. After-school classroom sessions incorporate lessons on time management and test-taking—and, above all, goal-setting.
“If you don’t set goals, you’re not really going to have anything to work towards,” says 6th grader Faith Anderson. “If you have something you’re working towards, you can think about a bigger picture. If you didn’t have a goal to finish college, you might stop doing schoolwork and homework.”
For the high-schoolers in Wells Academy, the focus is truly on academics. There is weekly help with homework and preparation for standardized tests; T2C staff even guide students through college applications and connect them with job leads.
“For many students and families, the idea of navigating collegiate application process is like, ‘Woah,’” says Willett. “We want to help them navigate that, help them find scholarships, help them make decisions about what’s the right plan for them.”
Of course, at the core of every day of programming, there’s always tennis—lots and lots of tennis. Every time they’re at FWTEC, T2C kids get a chance to hit. They learn basic technique and play a lot of games. Some kids take the sport farther than others, eventually trying out for their school teams or joining FWTEC’s junior program; many simply have a great time as they learn something new.
Either way, says Associate Director Tom Miller, they’re benefiting in more ways than one.
“Youth in T2C quickly experience mastery both on and off the court,” says Miller. “There’s a very palpable sense of accomplishment and success, which really has a positive spillover effect into all areas of their lives.”
“I’ve learned that tennis and life are similar,” says Jaylinn Vera, a student in the middle-school program. “If you have good sportsmanship and a positive attitude, you’ll have a good match. If you have a nice attitude in life, it will get you a lot farther.”