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Mary and Frances Youth Center garners Innovation Award from USTA Mid-Atlantic

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Kids practice and play with staff and volunteers at the Mary and Frances Youth Center. Photos by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

As dusk falls on Linden Street, about a dozen young tennis players pile out of a bus and bring the Mary and Frances Youth Center to life.

As some kids volley back and forth with a volunteer, others try their hand at a finesse exercise. Nobody’s bored, as the two courts are sliced into four different groups and everyone is kept moving.

“For a lot of them … it is their first experience playing tennis. It allows us to provide them with a healthy lifestyle activity that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to play or experience,” said Rachel Rhoney, assistant director of the center.

For its work, the Mary and Frances Youth Center received the 2015 USTA Mid-Atlantic Section Innovation Award in late November in Washington, D.C. The honor for “embracing change as a strategy to grow tennis” comes after years of service to the Richmond community.

The Lobs and Lessons program is a cornerstone of the center’s work, serving up tennis and life skills for Richmond’s young residents. To a seasoned tennis fan, the court setup may look odd. The nets are low, the rackets are small and the kids are playing on less than half of the court — and sideways.

It’s all very interactive and designed to fit their height and abilities.

“I always tell people it’s like T-ball is to baseball. It’s all about fun and getting out there and playing quickly,” Rhoney said. “Everything is game-based. It’s not ‘drill and kill,’ which is how tennis used to be, where you are waiting in a line and waiting to hit a yellow ball. It’s all very interactive and designed to fit their height and abilities.”

There are stages of balls, stages of racket size and stages of how much of the court is in play. The players progress through the stages as they age and gain more skill.

“Lobs and Lessons is a youth enrichment program that strengthens life skills, promotes academics and creates a pathway to higher education through the sport of tennis. So tennis is essentially our hook to get the kids in, teach them life skills and bring them on a college campus,” Rhoney said.

“The transportation piece is always a challenge, so we tend to work with community partners that do have transportation to bring the youth to us,” she said. Today, those afterschool partners include Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Peter Paul Development Center, Boys and Girls Club and the Next Step Program at Henderson Middle School. Saint Andrews School is within walking distance, as well.

“We’re really flexible with our community partners and work with them to help design a program that fits their needs,” said Tina Carter, director of the center. “All of our programs come here for tennis, most have a snack that we get from FeedMore, and most of them participate in a life-skill lesson.” Those lessons can touch on sportsmanship, character development skills, academics and how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Kids, staff and volunteers take part in a team exercise before starting tennis practice.
Kids, staff and volunteers take part in a team exercise before starting tennis practice.

The VCU community is a huge asset for the center, which draws about 40 to 50 programming volunteers and about 100 event volunteers, Carter said. Several have worked with the center for years.

“We’ll find out from the kids what careers they want to go into, or what degrees they would want when they go to college. Every time our youth are around these [VCU] students, they have a chance to tell them what they are studying, what degree they are getting, what kind of job that degree will help them get,” Carter said. When students learned some kids were interested in law enforcement careers, the center arranged for VCU Police and Richmond Police to bring a K-9 and do a demonstration.

Student groups also visit for lessons and activities, including environmental group Green Unity and STEM-focused group Sci Kids. These interactions help the center’s participants see college as part of their future.

The spirit of the game infuses the center’s other programs. For instance, the center helped mark its 10th anniversary with a glow-in-the-dark tennis event, and cardio tennis classes focus on elevating heartbeats rather than scoring points on an opponent. Next year, the center hopes to adapt the play-to-learn style to create events and classes for young professionals.

 “There are a lot of opportunities there to get people into the game,” Rhoney said.

There are a lot of opportunities there to get people into the game.

The regional award sought programs that were:

  • Attracting and retaining new players and/or expanded the current player base by introducing a unique new offering.
  • Consistently responsive to try new and different ideas.
  • Proactive in trying new and different ideas without being asked.
  • Willing to learn and grow through trial and error and share experience with others.
  • Creatively using human and financial resources to achieve impact.


“We’re really honored to receive the award,” Rhoney said. “It just reminds us that we’re on the right path in terms of creating new and different programs to help grow tennis in our community.”

 

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The Lobs and Lessons staff. Left to right are Assistant Director Rachel Rhoney, Valena Doe, Taylor Thornburg and Director Tina Carter.
Click to view slideshow. The Lobs and Lessons staff. Left to right are Assistant Director Rachel Rhoney, Valena Doe, Taylor Thornburg and Director Tina Carter.