By Suzanne Dent, Net News Editor
Children giggle as they swing (and often miss) the ball. On the sidelines, parents chat and enjoy the antics of the budding tennis players. At their feet, toddlers play with balls that have gone astray.
It’s just another Friday night of drills at Serve & Connect.
The name tells the story of this Washington Park tennis program that seeks to foster community in a neighborhood that often does not feel neighborly. Yes, there are a couple of police officers on the court. But this is not official business; this is about fun and getting to know one another.
“There is so much that can be done for Atlanta through tennis,” says Kristina Felton, who manages the volunteer program via the Atlanta Youth Tennis & Education Foundation.
The original program was the brainchild of a Boston police officer, who worked with a tennis center to create Volley Against Violence. The goal was to decrease youth violence by providing positive experiences, teaching good decision-making and offering connections to adult role models, including Boston police officers. The first session was held in 2009 with one officer and eight participants.
Atlanta was the second city to embrace Volley Against Violence. Universal Tennis Academy, which manages Washington Tennis Center in west Atlanta, wanted to expand its programs and worked with AYTEF and the USTA Foundation to start the local program in the high-crime area.
The ALTA Foundation has been a sponsor from the beginning. “We have had the pleasure to support the youth at Washington Park through the AYTEF,” says Linda Shepherd, president of The ALTA Foundation. “Friday nights in the spring and fall are some exciting times. Not only do young college tennis players volunteer their time to work with the youth, the Atlanta Police department teams up to bridge the divide between the police and the community.”
The program, now called Serve & Connect, is going strong in eight metro areas, including Boston and Atlanta. Held spring and fall since 2016, this spring marked Atlanta’s fifth session.
“At the first session, you could tell the kids were a little intimidated by the police officers being there,” says ALTA member Laura Barnard, who has volunteered from the beginning. “Now they can’t wait to get out there. They literally run as fast as they can to get on the courts.”
An average Friday night event attracts about 50 children with coaches and volunteers directing drills. Atlanta Police officers Brian Webber and Jarius Daugherty have attended most Friday night gatherings since the beginning, cutting up with the children.
“They are awesome,” Felton says. “They are just fun, and the kids love them,” Barnard agrees. “The kids respect them, but they’ve learned they can also have fun with them.”
Other mentors always on hand include William Fulton, affectionately called “Coach Wink,” and Clayton Saunders of Atlanta’s Police Athletic League. Coach Wink knows every child’s name. He jokes with them while keeping them in line. Under his tutelage, the children are well behaved but still having a great time. The same is true of Saunders, whose good-natured ribbing resonates with the older boys.
They use tennis to teach discipline, good sportsmanship, respect for authority and other life lessons by emphasizing one word each session. Highlighted character traits have included “effort,” “focus,” “determination,” “enthusiasm,” “integrity” and “teamwork.”
Felton holds these coaches and any volunteer willing to give up a Friday night in high regard. Some drive more than an hour to help. She has several regulars she can count on but is always ready to welcome newcomers to help run drills at Serve & Connect.
Donations are also welcome. The court time is underwritten by Universal Tennis Academy; other donors provided equipment and T-shirts. Sponsorship money goes toward small coaching stipends and dinner after drills, but Felton wishes there were additional funds so she could provide even more nutritious meals.
It’s all part of the safe and healthy lifestyle that AYTEF seeks to promote among inner-city children through tennis. “Tennis is a lifetime sport,” Felton says. “Unlike many other sports, you don’t need many people to play it. You can even play it alone by hitting against a wall. Everyone can play it.”