Vermont Nonprofit Helps Fix Up Tennis Courts In Cuba

An offshoot of a Vermont-based nonprofit is helping young athletes in Cuba with some critical improvements to the places they play. And we’re not talking about baseball.

Kids on the Ball is helping to repair some of Cuba’s badly damaged tennis courts — fixes that cost more than half a million dollars. The group eventually wants to foster some lasting ties between Cuban tennis players and their U.S. counterparts.

Jake Agna is the founder of Kids on the Ball, and this week he’s traveling down to Cuba for the ribbon-cutting for newly resurfaced courts there. He spoke with VPR before his trip.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio here.

VPR: What prompted you to first visit Cuba? What did you discover in connection with kids playing tennis and the conditions of the courts?

Agna: “In America, I had gotten a lot of acclaim for grassroots tennis, because that’s what we’ve been doing … since 2000. But my daughter nudged me and said, ‘These guys? This is grassroots tennis.’ And so I got up there, humbled right off the bat, and said, ‘You know, I don’t know why I’m down here in a lot of ways, I wanted to see what you guys got.’

“So they took me out to the National Tennis Center pretty quickly, and it was just humbling. The courts were really beat up. I’ve never seen balls that beat up … the nets were strung up to chairs and I felt a lump in my throat.

“I looked at these kids [and] the first thing you notice is the attitude — tremendous attitude and talent. I mean, the kids are physically fit, but more than anything, just the energy and the enthusiasm was like, I was surprised.”

How did you get the idea to raise money to repair these courts, and how did you make that happen?

“I told the Cubans that I’m going to go back to some of the foundations that I talk to and see if they are willing to get behind this. My plan was to help them right off the bat with balls, string, rackets, shoes, a stringing machine, and then the first phase basically was to fix the courts, which was going to be a lot of money.

“Second phase was to fix this building that’s there, it’s the National Tennis Center — it’s really beat up. And then the third phase was to get kids to play each other — American kids to go down there and Cuban kids come up [here].

“And so I came back and I went to a couple of the major donors I have. I went to Bob Stiller, who at that time had Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and he gave a tremendous donation to get it off the ground. And then I just was enthused, I felt like it could happen. That’s how I fundraise. I just get in a mood and I just started calling people up and we got a lot of money pretty quickly.”

When you started traveling to Cuba, President Obama was in office and was working to reestablish diplomatic ties to Cuba. Now it’s unclear where U.S.-Cuban relations are headed in the Trump Administration. Has the new political climate affected what you’re doing in Cuba?

“Not really, but for sure the Cubans are asking questions. The normal Joe on the street, the cab driver, says, ‘What do you think’s going to happen?’ And you know, I don’t know.

“It was amazing, we started right at the right time. Cuba was opening up, I started to take people down on trips because partly I wanted to fundraise that way, but mostly I wanted people to see what I saw and come back with stories. I thought that would be the way to spread the word about how great a people they are.

What are your hopes for getting some of these Cuban players to Vermont at some point, and again, do you think that might be affected by what happens with the Trump Administration?

“I do think that the embargo has to be lifted for these kids to be able to come out of there and play. Over the past two years, we’ve taken some teenage kids down there. That’s what I want to see is, I want to see our kids play with their kids, because everybody comes back saying, ‘Man, that was fun.'”

Tennis Converges Under One Umbrella to Promote Tennis in Cuba

Tennis Channel. TENNIS Magazine. Tennis Industry. TENNIS.com. It doesn’t take a racquet scientist to see that, while each of these media outlets occupies a different space, they are all doing the same thing: promoting the sport of tennis.

And so it only makes sense that, as of last month, these broadcast, print and digital voices of the game converged under one umbrella. They joined forces in order to tell more compelling stories, better inform you about what’s important in the sport, and report on the players and places that matter—including those players and places that don’t have a voice. You have probably noticed various elements of the Tennis Channel appearing on TENNIS.com, and vice versa. Think of these early collaborations as formations that a newly formed doubles team practices. Some will work, others will need tinkering. But we know one thing for sure: we’ve found the perfect partner.

This piece has been edited for our site, read the full letter here.

This week, Tennis Channel’s seasoned crew of producers, editors and reporters will travel to Havana, Cuba to chronicle a most unexpected transformation: the rebirth of the country’s National Tennis Center by a group of Americans. Originally built for the 1992 Pan-American Games, the NTC’s courts had fallen into utter disrepair, a playing surface in name only. The nets sagged, the fences rusted—it was a dismal scene. The playing conditions were both unsafe and unacceptable by any reasonable standard. You can see hi-res photography of what the NTC once looked like over at Baseline.

Neglect had taken the life out of these courts—but not the game out of the players, as Jake Agna discovered. A tennis pro from Burlington, Vermont and co-founder of the Kids on the Ball youth tennis program, Agna began making regular visits to Havana after watching a CBS Sunday Morning episode that highlighted a musician’s cultural journey to Cuba. Inspired by the piece, Agna made his first trip to a nation seemingly off-limits to Americans for decades. He saw the value of his own cultural connection, through tennis, and the potential of the Cuban children—as well the unsuitable conditions they played in.

Needing the right equipment and facilities to bring their tennis dreams to life, Agna coordinated an effort with Hinding Tennis, a court-construction company from Connecticut, to undertake the first on-the-ground U.S. work project in Cuba in over 60 years. What they have achieved, and what they still wish to achieve, is the subject of Tennis Channel’s latest documentary project.

In rebuilding Cuba’s National Tennis Center, two governments came together to create something powerful, that will resonate with all who enjoy tennis. I can think of no more appropriate story to tell that better exemplifies another exciting union, between TENNIS.com and Tennis Channel.

Sincerely,
Ed McGrogan
Senior Editor, TENNIS.com

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The Cuban American Friendship Society, Kids on the Ball and @Hinding Tennis celebrating the signing of the bill of lading at the National Tennis Center in Havana, Cuba – The signing of this document will now allow the materials needed to repair the courts at The National Tennis to be received into Cuba.

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Coming January 2017 this episode will look at the first infrastructure project being conducted in Cuba in over 60 years; resurfacing the Havana tennis courts. However, this project is about more than tennis. It is about restoring friendships that have been lost for generations.

VT Nonprofit to Rebuild Cuba Tennis Center

HAVANA, CUBA- In an historic meeting on March 1, 2016, the Cuban government approved a project to rebuild the tennis courts at the National Tennis Center in Havana, Cuba. The project is the vision of Jake Agna, tennis pro of Burlington, Vermont.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.newengland.usta.com

Kids on the Ball Cuba to re-build 10 tennis courts in Havana

His Vermont Kids on The Ball Program along with the Cuban American Friendship Society are now taking this new found relationship a step further. After President Obama’s executive order to lift sanctions on the communist island, the group was able to get approval to re-build 10 tennis courts at the National Tennis Center in Havana.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.wptz.com