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Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program: dedication to a cause.

On any given weekday morning, the Harlem Armory Center is bustling with activity. It is the headquarters for the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, a nonprofit organization that provides tennis lessons to children who otherwise may not have an opportunity to play the sport. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the program, which was founded by the late Bill Brown, a professional tennis player in the '70s, and the late Claude Cargill, a former police officer who dedicated countless anything he could--time, money, and friendship--to make the program a success.

In the summer months, the program operates a day camp, which includes specialized lessons at Howard Bennett Park and Riverside Park, and provides field trips to places such as the U.S. Open and other tennis tournaments around the country. During the rest of the year, children between the ages of 8 and 16 receive two lessons per week, complete with two hours of schoolwork. Executive Director Katrina Adams and Program Director Dante Brown work tirelessly to ensure that all the children receive top-notch training, mentoring, and education.

"Nonprofit tennis programs have always been an interest of mine," says Adams, who is also director-at-large on the USTA Board of Directors. "It was a no-brainer to become involved with the kids. I'll watch a child truly develop and it brings a smile to my face." Adams spent more than a decade as a professional tennis player for the WTA and four years as a USTA coach before joining the program two years ago. In addition to her current responsibilities, she commentates for the Tennis Channel and serves as a spokesperson for the Althea Gibson Foundation.

Brown is more than the HJTEP program director, he is one of the program's many success stories. As a 12-year-old growing up in Harlem, he was curious about tennis and decided to stop by the Armory on a whim one day. He's been playing ever since. Through the HJTEP he was awarded an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University where he played varsity tennis. His exceptional skill led to a successful professional career, but during his college and professional years he always made time to volunteer with the program. "I could never leave. It's where my heart is," explains Brown, who served as executive director of the program for 11 years before being named program director last year.

Brown has been called coach, mentor, teacher, friend, or father figure to many of the children in the program. "I don't have any biological children," says the lifelong Harlem resident, "but all of the children in the program are mine. I am proud of every single one." Participants are not limited to children who live in Harlem, or even New York City. Those who live in the suburbs send their children to the program because of the exceptional resources it provides. And it gives African American and Latino children a chance to make new friends and interact with each other.

The Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program is aptly named. Brown and Adams emphasize education, both in a child's personal and professional life. So it's no surprise that the program also focuses on providing a comfortable and welcoming learning environment. "Tennis is a sport of life lessons," says Adams. "Children are learning to be disciplined and establish good character. They are learning to make quick decisions--a skill that will help serve them throughout the rest of their lives."

It wouldn't be far-fetched to say that a college acceptance letter and potential scholarship is the ultimate goal for program participants. Adams and Brown take turns checking report cards to make sure each child is earning at least a C average, the minimum required to stay in the program. The HJTEP also created The Secondary and College Resource Center, where qualified teaching professionals spend as much time as necessary with each child to make sure they have a complete grasp on whatever subject they are currently studying. The Center provides computers and Internet access to those who don't have them at home. All of the tutors and tennis coaches help the students navigate their way through the intimidating college process: preparing for the SAT, determining which schools to apply to, writing application essays, and filling out financial aid paperwork. Each time Brown sees a letter beginning with "We cordially invite you to attend...," he knows he has made a difference in a child's life. Some of the children are the first in their family to attend college.

Each child is also encouraged to compete in tournaments to enhance their already-established skills, and the HJTEP offers many opportunities for them to do so, including the parent/child doubles tournament each spring and the annual beginners championship featuring the program's official spokespersons, James and Thomas Blake. James Blake, who has competed in Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open, was inspired to pursue a professional tennis career upon hearing a speech from role model Arthur Ashe. The speech was arranged by the HJTEP. Thomas achieved fame via a professional career with the Association of Tennis Professionals and two entries in the U.S. Open. Both brothers earned athletic scholarships to Harvard as a result of their involvement in the program and show their gratitude by frequenting the Armory to teach and interact with the children. The Blakes attended the program's first annual Tennis Party this past May, which also featured backgammon and chess for non-tennis players.

Between the Blakes and the loyal coaches, the child participants always have unconditional support. To date, the HJTEP has more than 200 participants in the summer and more than 150 in the winter. Additionally, more than 4,500 people have "graduated" through the program since it was founded in 1972. At a recent tournament in Bermuda, one of the program's participants won the Kids 14 division while another made it to the Kids 14 semifinals. Brown was ecstatic. Right now he is in the midst of planning another trip down south to play in a national tournament.

But for a small nonprofit such as the HJTEP, funding is always an issue. An ongoing need for charitable donations leads companies such as Black Enterprise, Microsoft, and Pepsi to help invest in equipment such as racquets and balls. Donations also go towards paying entrance fees for tournaments. "We eventually want to have our own facility but it's an uphill battle, mainly due to space permissions," says Brown. Currently, the program is renting the Armory from the Police Athletic League. It has been a challenge finding a space that will accommodate tennis courts, a computer lab, and hundreds of happy children, but Brown and Adams are committed to making it happen. "It's a great program," says Brown. "We have been successful so far and we expect to keep that same level of success going forward."

To find out how you can support the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, visit www.harlemjuniortennis.org or call (212) 491-3738.
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Author:Young, Stephanie
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Words:1165
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