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QuickStart Tennis for $2.78/Week -- Amelia Island's Community Effort

August 2, 2010 04:36 PM
From left: Kraft tennis organizers, sisters Liz Kawecki
and Susie DeMille 
They stand on the wooden deck outside the tennis clubhouse, next to the claycourts, animatedly chatting and laughing, roughly 20 of them -- parents, grandparents, former career classroom teachers, former gym teachers, retired businesspeople. It doesn't look like a junior tennis program, save for the women in their skirts and the men in their tennis whites.

"Everybody I need your attention!" yells organizer Susie DeMille over the commotion, rallying her troops. They are the volunteers -- more volunteers than total children you might see in some tennis programs. Then once the kids start arriving, dropped off by parents or escorted in by parents who stay to watch and socialize, the scope of the program becomes apparent.

"After I got 50 kids I thought, 'Whoa, should we say no [and turn kids away]?' But now we're up to 90 kids, with the additional Boys & Girls Club kids," says DeMille, who with her sister Liz organizes this, the first year of the QuickStart Tennis summer camp at the Kraft Tennis Center on Amelia Island. "We don't have 90 kids on the court, people go on holidays for the summer, they're in and out. Sometimes we'll have 40-something, sometimes we'll have 60-something kids here."

There are no teaching pros putting kids through their paces. There are no killer running drills, or a ladder hierarchy from junior superstars down to absolute beginners. The USTA's QuickStart Tennis format, recently introduced to ease 10-and-under children into the game featuring smaller racquets, nets, courts and low-bouncing foam or decompressed balls, is all about fun. Thirteen of the Kraft Tennis Center volunteers are trained QuickStart instructors via USTA Florida's QuickStart Tennis Recreational Workshops, which are open to any individuals in recreational programs across the state working with children.

"These people are so committed because they love tennis and they want to see it grow," DeMille says of the Kraft volunteers. "Some of these people are grandparents and they have their grandchildren in here, and they like to, at the end of the day, say 'I taught them something.' We don't have any teaching pros, we don't have anyone paid to be here by any means, and I think it's special to say that. They're here to laugh with these kids and have a ball, and the people that I have working with the 7-8 year olds, and working with the 9-10 year olds, they know how to do that."

Parents such as Maria Murphy, whose son Graham is in the summer program, appreciates the QuickStart format that lets children instantly engage in rallies and places the emphasis on fun rather than competition.

"For a kid like Graham who doesn't really take to other sports, he's been really taken by it," Murphy said. "He just loves the classes so much, he's just so ready to go every time. It's been so wonderful. We're so grateful for the program, we're grateful for the cost."

DeMille's sister Liz Kawecki says running the low-cost QuickStart summer camp is the Amelia Island community's way of "paying it forward," especially after the nearby resort hotel closed their tennis courts.

"We said we wanted to do something for kids, and there was no tennis," Kawecki said. "This was an opportunity to get kids involved in tennis, to get kids moving. I'm a yoga instructor and also a fitness specialist. This is just a really unique opportunity to get kids out here, and we also thought it would be fun because it's giving back to the community."

After the resort hotel courts closed, a group of Amelia Island players approached the Kraft Athletic Club about building courts on the Kraft Ten Acres property. Kraft Tennis Partners was then founded, and the group leased land from Kraft Ten Acres to build five claycourts, which would serve their adult league play and the QuickStart camps and leagues.

"At the end of the day we have made no money off of this, nor do we want to make money off of this," DeMille says. "Each child here is $25 for the summer, which includes a t-shirt and snacks and all the water they can drink and all the fun they can have. It really comes out to be $2.78 per week that their child is here [for the summer]. And we're having a big cook-out at the end of the season."

The father of the sisters, Jerry Kawecki, played his part in the founding of Kraft Tennis Partners by drafting the bylaws and organization of the charter, then got his hands dirty by building the large wooden deck adjacent to the clubhouse.

"I've been playing tennis for a long time, and these are really a great group of people to be with," said the elder Kawecki, noting that the Kraft Tennis Partners, who raised the money for the tennis facility, also pay membership to Kraft Ten Acres to show their support of the organization. "The people that become members of the organization are the same people that volunteer to support the organization. We have a clubhouse, and there's a group of members that takes care of that, and we have schedules for taking care of things on the grounds, and taking care of the courts. When we put up some of the tennis courts, we took some of [the Kraft Ten Acres] playground, so we went ahead and we built them another playground. Everything is done by people that are members of this tennis partnership."

Frances Blancett, another founding member, still marvels at the community coming together. Once a small group of players got the go-ahead from the non-profit Kraft Ten Acres board to lease the land and build the courts, they alerted all the local players via e-mail regarding a community meeting.

"We met with everyone who was interested and said, 'We need you to give us some money if you're really interested, some good faith money.' Everybody gave, and we moved forward with it, and it was all on a hope and a prayer that it would work, and it did," Blancett said.

The Kraft Tennis Partnership now had courts for their local adult league. They then applied and became an official Community Tennis Association (CTA) through the USTA, and then applied for a QuickStart equipment grant through USTA Florida's 'Share the Love' campaign. Once granted the equipment, they were then ready to launch a program to give back to the community.

"We initially knew we needed to do some outreach in the community since we were non-profit, and since the establishment of Kraft Ten Acres was based on doing community athletics, we felt it was important that we do that," Blancett said. "We knocked around some things, and we found out about the QuickStart, and we met with [USTA Florida staff].

"The membership accepted it very well, we weren't sure because sometimes the membership can be very selfish with their courts," Blancett said, smiling, "but I haven't heard any complaints about it. And I know it's important for our club to have this for our community."

Now that sisters Susie and Liz have a thriving QuickStart operation for 10-and-unders, they're eyeing the next level of participation for their children who are aging-up, and for older children in the community -- the USTA Jr. Team Tennis league, for children 10-18 years old.

"We had nothing, we didn't have that young membership here," said DeMille, who never knew if they would originally get even 10 children to participate after "knocking on doors, creating fliers, going to middle and elementary schools and YMCAs, and telling everyone we knew" in an effort to recruit children. "QuickStart is what brought them in and it's been fantastic. The USTA Florida grant was an integral part of making this happen, that was a lot of money that was given to us and we used every dime of it."

Bringing the QuickStart format to Amelia Island, says Demille, is Kraft Tennis Partners' way of giving back while ensuring future generations of tennis players in the community.

"My son had played QuickStart so I was familiar with it, but at the time I'd never seen anything like it before, my son was playing points easily. It wasn't stressful, it was fun because they weren't standing in lines and missing the ball 20 times."

To learn more about QuickStart Tennis, go to www.ustaflorida.com

For information on QuickStart equipment and other opportunities available through the USTA Florida 'Share the Love' campaign, go to www.USTASharetheLove.com.






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