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With USTA Funding, St. George Program Helps At-Risk Kids Play Tennis

June 20, 2014 12:54 PM

SAINT GEORGE, S.C. – On Wednesday morning, 24 kids with clammy palms and soggy T-shirts had fun playing and learning about tennis here.

The kids, ages 5 to 10, laughed as they hit lower-bouncing red and orange balls to each other. They also practiced their forehand and backhand stances and eventually played points with their peers.

Later, the kids went inside and learned how playing tennis can help them become good people.

Many of these kids, if not for this camp, likely would be at home, either sleeping in or playing video games, said Barbara Jones, executive director of the St. George Youth Sports League, which runs the summer tennis camp.

In rural St. George, population 2,127, kids have few summer activities to choose from, unlike their peers in urban areas.

Having more social and healthy activities in the summer can be especially helpful for St. George kids, many of whom are from low-income households. More than 90 percent of the students who attend the St. George school district receive federal subsidies for their meals, which can be an indicator of poverty.

And kids from disadvantaged areas typically do fewer activities in the summer, such as visit national parks on vacation or go to camps, than their peers from more affluent areas.

“All these kids are at-risk,” Jones said of her St. George kids. “They’re learning social skills and they’re learning a sport.”

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Peggy Funderburk teaches a group of kids how to hit the ball Wednesday. Funderburk is one of about eight volunteers who help run the St. George Summer Tennis Camp. (USTA SC photo.)

She started organizing the camp last year with about eight other volunteers as a way to introduce kids to tennis. The city already had the courts; in 2008, Jones started the effort that eventually led to three new full-size courts and four 36’ courts for kids 8 and under in St. George.

Last year, St. George hosted two weeklong camps for kids new to tennis, and 25 kids attended. Twenty percent, or 5, of those kids also kept officially playing tennis; they joined the St. George Jr. Team Tennis program in the fall, Jones said.

This summer, she held a one-week camp for kids familiar with tennis and another one-week camp for kids who had played tennis before. About 50 different kids attended the camps this summer.

“The community is more aware of tennis,” Jones said.

(PHOTOS: Click here for more St. George Summer Tennis Camp photos.)

This is also the second year the camp has received funding help from USTA-affiliated organizations.

Earlier this year, Jones applied for and received a $4,100 grant from the Southern Tennis Patrons Foundation, the charitable side of USTA Southern, although not all of that money will go to the camp.

Jones also received $600 from the South Carolina Tennis Patrons Foundation, the non-profit arm of USTA South Carolina, this year. Last year, Jones received a $1,200 grant from the South Carolina foundation.Kaleshiawatchingball

Kaleshia Green is one of about 50 kids who have enjoyed this year's St. George Summer Tennis Camp. (USTA SC photo.)

The grant money helps pay for camp T-shirts, snacks, lunches, racquets and balls. At the camp, kids arrive around 8 a.m. and eat breakfast and leave around noon, after they’ve eaten lunch. The kids also receive a free one-year USTA membership.

Last year's grant money helped pay for the educational materials the volunteers still use, the ACE curriculum from the National Junior Tennis & Learning network.

"Without the grants," Jones said, "we couldn't do it."

Inside air-conditioning, volunteer James Ravenell quizzed the kids on what certain words, such as cooperation, meant.

“It means working together to accomplish something very important,” one boy responded.

Ravenell then asked the kids how the skill of cooperating might relate to tennis, and a girl sharply related the skill to playing doubles with a partner.

Ravenell eventually quizzed and explained 14 such traits and skills that will help the kids in life and in tennis.

He’s become involved with camp the past two years because of who the program predominately helps: African-American children. Ravenell grew up in St. George and played on the St. George high school tennis team. When he graduated in 1987, he said, he was one of two African-American people in town who played tennis on the city’s then weedy and dilapidated courts.

The kids Ravenell was teaching were glad the camp was happening as well.

Kaleshia Green, 9, has been playing tennis since she was 3. At the camp, she especially enjoyed learning where to serve the ball and how to shuffle her feet on court.

She advised others playing tennis to practice good sportsmanship. When your opponent makes a good shot, she said, tell him or her good hit.

Evan Overeem, 10, shared similar wisdom.

Evan liked playing tennis matches at the camp the most. His tennis advice was also less about tennis and more about life: “Don’t make fun of anybody,” he said.

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