Oklahoma Bar Foundation Grantee, Oklahoma Lawyers for Children, hosts tennis clinic for local kids, including children in foster care.
Why I Love “Our Little Tennis Clinic”
By: Tsinena Thompson, Oklahoma Lawyers For Children President & CEO
I happen to love tennis. I love that it’s a physical sport, but it’s also a very “polite” sport. Women can play with men, children can play with adults in singles or doubles.
It sure seems like a lot more people are taking up tennis these days. It’s so much fun to see little kids learning to swing a racquet next to the court of some “super seniors” who may not move quite as quickly as they once did, but can drop that ball exactly where they want and right where their opponent is not. Maybe more people are taking up tennis because it can be played inside or outside, rain or shine. Maybe it’s because you can play the game as a single player or as part of a team, or possibly because it’s great exercise and unlike golf, you don’t have to take 5 hours out of your day to play.
Maybe tennis is so popular because it brings a unique joy to players’ lives.
About five years ago, Suzanne LaBelle, Tennis Director at The Greens Country Club, suggested that they open up the club’s summer juniors tennis program a week out of the summer to invite foster children. The Greens’ juniors tennis program is really well-run and taught by USTA-certified pros who truly care about giving quality instruction to their young students. This sounded like a great idea to me because in our metro area, state-run shelters and group homes were still housing foster children. In these placements, opportunities for foster kids to get out and do the kind of fun things that most other children do during the summer months were severely lacking.
OLFC jumped at the chance to bring tennis to foster youth, so we arranged for kids to come by van or bus from the shelters and group homes to give it a try. Most of these children had never been to a tennis court and would certainly be coming without racquets, but The Greens staff wasn’t worried in the least. “If you can get them here,” Suzanne told me, “we will make sure there are enough tennis racquets and pros for the proper ratio.” The first two days, there were maybe 10-12 kids. But on the following days, there were more and more as word spread after the kids returned back to the shelter or group homes talking about how much fun the clinic was and what a great time they had. That first year, we had over 50 kids that ended up coming to the clinic!
The next years were even better as we reached out to foster families by offering the clinic to children in regular foster placements as well as the children in shelters or group homes. Foster families were very grateful for a few hours’ reprieve, so they could go to the grocery store, run errands or just relax a bit knowing that their foster children were in a safe, healthy environment having fun.
We also started offering the kids more than tennis lessons alone. Since tennis clinics typically start between 8:00 – 8:30 in the morning, we decided that it would be a good idea to have a little something available for the kids to eat before heading out to the courts for several hours of exercise. We started bringing in fresh juice, fruit, yogurt & granola cups and muffins to make sure the kiddos were properly fueled up. And, well, everyone knows that kids are always hungry, so we started cooking out for them every day after the clinic was over. And, well, you know it gets pretty hot in the summer, so why not make arrangements for the kids to go swimming at The Greens family pool to cool off and relax a bit?
And so OLFC’s little tennis clinic has grown. As the years have gone by, it’s not uncommon for us to have well over 100 foster children come to the OLFC’s week-long tennis clinic at The Greens.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with several foster families that have told me how much this clinic helped their foster child. It’s hard for traumatized children to find healthy outlets for their frustrations. They’ve been removed from their homes through no fault of their own. Now living with people they barely know – or may not have ever even met before – ripped away from siblings, pets and other familiar aspects of home. Who wouldn’t be upset?
Many foster parents have commented to me that their kiddo sure had a lot of aggression to get out, and tennis sure seemed to help a lot! Others remarked that their foster child had difficulty being respectful or using manners and that the polite, respectful nature of tennis really helped that. Wow! Who would have thought that?
Without question, the most moving story of how OLFC’s little tennis clinic made a difference to a child came a couple of years ago when I sat down next to a man who had been bringing four to six children to the clinic the first couple of days.
I asked him, “Surely these are not all of your foster kids, right?” He laughed and quickly said no, that he and his wife had a sibling group of three boys and that the other children belonged to neighbors who were also fostering. As he would come to drop off or pick up the kids we would wave hello or goodbye. A couple of times, as he was waiting for the kids to get their things, we would chat a little and I learned that he and his wife had been foster parents almost 17 years! As we continued talking, I asked him which of the boys out on the court were his foster sons. I will never forget him smiling, pointing out the boys one by one – and of course I would say hello and goodbye to them as they came to the clinic each day.
On the last day of the clinic, the foster dad came up a little early and sat down to chat with me. I asked him if the boys had enjoyed the clinic and if he thought they might like to continue playing. We were sitting in the gallery looking out over the courts and he pointed out one of his foster sons that looked about 16 years old, and then he began to break out in tears. Not knowing what was wrong, or if the clinic had been a disaster for this kid, I really didn’t know what to do or say. The man gathered himself, apologized profusely for the tears and told me that in all of the years and all of the children that had been placed in his and his wife’s home, he had never, ever seen a young man so utterly convinced that he could do nothing right. He looked me right in the eyes, shook his head and repeated so that I would really understand that this handsome young man did not believe that he could do even the simplest thing right.
All of his life, he had been screamed at, beaten and had it pounded into his head that he was no good, would never be any good, and could never do anything right. His foster dad continued to weep as he told me what a wonderful thing OLFC’s tennis clinic had been for this young man. On the first day when the boys came home, this young man viewed himself as he always had, that it wouldn’t make any difference if he went back because he could never learn to play. But the boy’s younger brother reminded him that he should go back because everyone would get these really cool t-shirts.
So he came back, and when he got there, people were glad to see him. When his foster dad picked him up that day, he was actually beaming, so excited that he had been hitting the ball back and forth over the net! That seemed like such a small thing, but to this young man, it was HUGE. The foster dad told me about the various things that they had tried to do, but nothing seemed to be able to overcome this young man’s overwhelming sense of failure – except OLFC’s little tennis clinic. As he left that day, I saw a young man come bouncing off the court, just like so many other kids, sweaty, laughing and having fun.
I smiled and yelled out to all of them to have a great day, thrilled on the inside to know that OLFC’s little tennis clinic had made a difference in this young man’s life.
Learn more about OLFC’s 2016 tennis clinic and tournaments at OLFC.org/events.