Sportsmen's Tennis and Enrichment Center

Getting Kids Moving

Sportsmen's Tennis

Blue Hill Avenue is graced by a block of green midway along its run through Dorchester, and within that park of playing fields and community gardens lies Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center (STEC). In 1961, a group of friends who knew the transformative power of tennis launched the organization and it has continued its focus on the health and well-being of youth as a route to overall community health ever since. In recent years, the Boston Foundation has funded Sportsmen’s as part of its Health and Wellness strategy in response to research published in 2007, which showed that obesity rates were high and rising. Obesity contributes to diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Following its seminal report, The Boston Paradox: Lots of Health Care, Not Enough Health, the Foundation realigned its work to focus on prevention and wellness rather than access to health care. A major goal of the strategy has been to increase youth physical activity. STEC recently received the second installment of a $225,000 operating grant.

Through introducing tennis to inner-city Boston and promoting excellence in the sport, STEC has been a guiding force in the lives of thousands of low- and moderate-income youth of color. While it has always pursued its vision of tennis as a sport that can open doors of opportunity and hope, its offerings have expanded over the decades to address other issues that hinder young people’s prospects and hurt the community at large. The primary emphasis of STEC’s programming, though, is to promote healthy physical activity for young people: All of the programs incorporate tennis.

How does that look on a day to day basis? In addition to tennis instruction, STEC runs a thriving, low-cost after-school program for elementary through high school students with staff engaged in homework time and Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time, as well as coordinating enrichment projects in language arts, science and mathematics. Friday Night Tennis is a highlight of the multipart Volley Against Violence program, which also includes free leadership and mentorship programs for boys and girls age 7-17 on Saturdays and free Community Tennis on Sundays. In Volley Against Violence, participants think and talk about what causes and what can stop violence, get to know members of the police force, play games and eat together.

On a day the Boston Foundation visited, Director of Enrichment Thuan Nguyen was guiding after-school students in creating earthquake-proof structures—frameworks of balsa wood and glue that could withstand the shakings of a machine that imitated a maximum Richter scale temblor. Nguyen, whose degree is in sustainable development, says he sees it as a good way to promote sustainability to the next generation.

That day, students arrived by bus, on foot and in a Sportsmen’s van that made pick-ups at farther-away schools. Among that bustling crew was Isaiah, one of the few students to arrive with his own tennis racket. He’s been coming to Sportsmen’s for [four] years. He has become an avid athlete who plays basketball, football and hockey, so the chance to learn a new sport and get to play a lot during an after-school program was perfect for him. We met him as he was about to move on from the Oliver Wendell Holmes School to the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy; Isaiah likes school and says math is his favorite subject, one in which he has even won prizes. Even so, he says that coming to Sportsmen’s has been good for his schoolwork. “I’ve learned how to listen better,” he reflects, crediting the tennis clinics where coaches not only introduce the rules and motions of the game, but keep it fresh (and require attentive listening from kids who want to participate in the fun) with new games and drills that involve everyone.

At 4:30—after homework, reading, crafts or earthquake testing—the kids troop down to the two indoor courts (there are also six outdoor courts) to get some exercise. Once on the court, the seemingly serious and quiet Isaiah gives way to a boy in his element. He is agile, fast, focused and grinning as he lasts the longest in the game called Paranoia. Players form a circle with one person in the middle who has to dodge and leap over two or three balls that the other players roll across the circle. It’s harder than it sounds, and Isaiah turns and hops with grace and quickness. He goes on to dominate the next drill too, rallying with student after student to remain “king of the court.”

Theresa Nixon, Isaiah’s mother, says that Sportsmen’s has had an impact far beyond tennis and healthy exercise: “This program has helped my son tremendously! Isaiah has developed socially, working as a team player, speaking his mind and most of all [making] friends—from a shy guy to a born leader.”