From one man’s vision to hundreds of kids headed for college

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Soon after picking up a tennis racquet for the first time at age 65, Twin Cities businessman Fred Wells realized that tennis could be a valuable teaching tool for players of all ages and backgrounds. He developed a vision of a community-accessible tennis facility with programs for low-income youth. Soon after, his trust funded Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center, which opened its doors in 2002.

Part two of a three part series. (Read part one here and part three here.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The writer does part-time communications work for Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center.

Initially, the Fort Snelling tennis center was intended to be just that: a tennis center.  FWTEC would ultimately exist as a facility, albeit one with an unusual focus on community and youth development. It would offer up its eight courts and classroom facilities for youth outreach programs put on by entities like the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS)—the idea being that the outside groups would take care of the curriculum and implementation.

Then came a reality check: MPS realized it couldn’t afford the programs it had tentatively committed to; USTA realized its specialty did not lay in off-court youth development. “Between money and entity missions, we were left with no programming,” says Margot Willett, executive director.  

With a youth outreach mission to fulfill but no youth programs to bring in, FWTEC decided to do the legwork in-house. It brought on Willett as the director of education and development; Willett tracked down volunteers and forged initial alliances with school partners in the Twin Cities. In spring of 2004, the center launched its first program for low-income youth: Tennis & Technology.

Citizens of the Court students in the classroom.

“We put together a curriculum, and brought about 18 kids in by van for after-school tennis, reading, writing skills and technology activities,” says Willett. “We had a 28-passenger van that came with the building.

“It soon became clear that we were going to need a bigger vehicle.”

Growth was swift. By the end of 2005, FWTEC had hired on teacher Judy Long to coordinate programming, traded in its van for a bus (complete with a contract bus driver) and launched a tennis and leadership program for low-income middle school girls. It had also nabbed a prestigious grant from the local McKnight Foundation—an endorsement that told Willett that FWTEC was “doing something right.”

Well-attended as the fledgling programs were, however, the staff and volunteers quickly began to see the need for something more comprehensive.

“I hated it when we’d lose kids from the program,” said Willett. “It made me realize that we needed to find ways to transition these kids, to keep them here longer. We needed to show them that there was something to stay here for—something more than just tennis.”

They began to envision a comprehensive, continuous program that would keep kids coming back to FWTEC year after year—transitioning them up through the grades with age-appropriate tennis and life skills curriculum, and ultimately aiding them in graduating from high school and getting into college.

It was an undeniably lofty goal.  

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was getting people to believe this was possible,” Willett says. “We had one funder who had funded us the year before who looked at me and said ‘How do you know this is doable?’ I said ‘I don’t, but if we don’t try we’ll never know.’”

In 2009, the FWTEC board supported Tennis2College as its strategic programming plan. But putting the pieces of Tennis2College into place was a struggle, says Willett. Though FWTEC staff were stretched with juggling the youth programs and the center’s “business side”—court rentals, adult classes and leagues and a successful junior program—there was no money to hire additional people.

FWTEC leadership poses with the NJTL Center of the Year Award.

A breakthrough came in 2011, when FWTEC received three prestigious national awards—including the National Junior Tennis and Learning Center of the Year from the USTA. Like the McKnight Foundation grant, it was another affirmation that FWTEC was doing something right.

“That was the time,’” says Willet. “We had to bite the bullet and spend the money bring in the people we needed to fill in the gaps in our programming.”

One of those people was Tom Miller, former program officer for The McKnight Foundation. When he stepped in as associate director in June of 2012, Miller began strengthening ties with partner schools, formalizing plans for distinct middle and high school programs and leading fundraising efforts—initiating all the steps, in essence, which were needed to fully realize Tennis2College.

Two Fort middle school students take part in a skit for a service-learning project.

By August of 2012, FWTEC had curriculum for a middle school program, and the people to implement: Program Coordinator Justin Margolies and Americorps Public Ally Amira Jama.  In early fall, around 30 students from Andersen and Anishinabe Academy began coming to FWTEC twice a week for after-school tennis and life skills.

Nearly all of them returned for the spring.