Everyone's a winner at this 'night court'

More than 30 young people got off a bus Friday night, Dec. 12, and spilled onto the courts at Four Seasons Racquet Club on Danbury Road for some tennis and then their third annual holiday party.

The players — with their coaches and volunteers — are members of Norwalk Grassroots Tennis, a nonprofit organization that helps children from low-income families access opportunities they might otherwise not have. The program spans athletics, education and socialization.

The children range from 8 to 18 and mostly live in Norwalk’s inner city. The project began in 1995 when Art Goldblatt and a group of fellow tennis players wanted to give the children an opportunity to play the game. In 2000, David Kimani, who accompanied the children to Four Seasons, joined the staff and is director of tennis and programming. A former captain of the Kenyan National Junior Tennis team, he came to the United States, earned a master’s degree in sports management from Springfield College, and worked as a professional at King’s Highway Tennis Club in Darien.

When he joined, Mr. Kimani said, the program was limited to the summer when children could play outdoors on public courts. There was only one team of 12 children, and he would bring them to King’s Highway to play friendly matches.

As the organization began to grow to a year-round program, many area tennis clubs stepped up to offer court time in the winter, including New Canaan Racquet Club, Chelsea Piers, King’s Highway, Shippan Racquet Club, Sylvan Tennis Club, and Four Seasons. The program increased its ranks to more than 250 children with six teams playing in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) junior league.

“Tonight we have U14, U16, U18,” Mr. Kimani said at Four Seasons on Friday. “Tomorrow, U8, U10, U12 will play in New Canaan.”

“The kids have the potential. What they need is the exposure,” he said.

Two of the students have won scholarships to play at Chelsea Piers. “They are able to play to the standards of the other players,” Mr. Kimani said.

The program is free to the children who join — free racquets, free shoes, free training. Recruitment is mostly by word of mouth, as well as being family-oriented. If one child from a family participates, his or her siblings likely will as well.

Right now, seven of the players are ranked by the USTA and they play in tournaments every other month. Mr. Kimani wants to increase the amount of tournament play to help students win college scholarships, since colleges consider players’ rankings when awarding grants.

Playing tennis is only one aspect of the Grassroots program. There is a strong educational component as well. Players are expected to do well in school.

“If they need help, we get them tutors and help,” Mr. Kimani said. “From school we tell them they are going to college. It’s court, classroom, college, career.”

When players turn 14, they have an opportunity to work for the program and thus “become role models to the younger kids,” Mr. Kimani said. “They learn the benefits of a paid job.”

One player getting ready to make the leap to college is Sehvrine Lezeau, a 17-year-old senior at Brien McMahon High School. She joined in 2009, following in the footsteps of her cousins.

She had never played tennis before, and although most of the other players engage in multiple sports, tennis is it for Sehvrine. She hopes to continue playing at the club level in college.

With her sights set on majoring in engineering and minoring in business, Sehvrine has been preparing by taking “some challenging courses” with the help of tutors provided by the tennis program.

“If you need it, they will find a way to help you,” Sehvrine said.

Duly Bolivar, 15, has been with the program three or four years. He likes the sport, he said, but he also likes the help he gets with school and the feeling of community.

“If you need any help, you can go to Grassroots,” he said Friday night. “It’s a big family. It’s a good thing to be connected with.”

Volunteers

Mr. Kimani said one invaluable aspect of the program’s success is the generosity of volunteers. “Volunteers have helped us lift our program to where the kids are playing in tournaments,” he said. This takes them “out of their own domain” and offers them new experiences.

Many of the programs volunteers are tennis players themselves, like Sean Cahill of Wilton, who was on hand coaching Friday night. He is also on the fund-raising committee.

“The game of tennis teaches so much about cooperation, hard work, making decisions, overcoming adversity, and how to figure it out,” he said when asked about the value of the program.

“Sportsmanship. I love the way Grassroots teaches that.”

As a member of Four Seasons, he has watched the Grassroots players over the years.

“I have seen the kids grow,” he said. “Some are teaching … I’m amazed by that,” he said referring to a number of Grassroots players who have gone on to become professional tennis instructors after leaving the program.

“It teaches life skills.”

Party

After more than an hour of practice, the players came off the courts for their holiday party, which included pizzas donated by Pinocchio Pizza; cupcakes, cookies and festive plates and napkins from Stop & Shop; and water, chips and other snacks from the Village Market.

Norwalk Grassroots Tennis has been coming to Four Seasons, a family-owned business, for several years.

Greg Moran, one of the owners, said he thinks Grassroots “is a fabulous program.”

“Their goals are combining sports and education. That will give the kids a chance of a better life.”

Grassroots is just one of the charitable programs the tennis club helps.

“We’ve been here nearly 40 years, and it may sound corny, but tennis has been very, very good to us and the town has been very, very good to us.”

As a way of giving back, each year the club sponsors a charity event to open its outdoor season. Some beneficiaries have been breast cancer groups, Wounded Warriors, victims of the Japan tsunami, and special needs children.