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In 2012, neighbors including Tetu gathered to take back their neighborhood. About the same time, quite fortuitously, SPUT took over a small space in the closed Eastview recreation center to store equipment.
That summer, Cantellano began a pilot evening tennis program at St. Paul’s Arkwright Park, also in a struggling neighborhood. “We knew that many at-risk kids were in summer school during the day, and we wanted to make sure that our program reached them,” she said.
The program was so successful that the city requested a similar program at Eastview in 2013. “We went into it … I don’t know if we were blind, but the first week [at Eastview] we had some concerns,” Cantellano said.
Coach Pana Vue, 19, remembers walking alone her first night to get equipment and being verbally harassed by a group of men. From then on, patrol cars drove by regularly. Coaches showed up and bonded enthusiastically with the kids. Mothers watched from their cars.
“As the summer went on, I became less and less scared,” Vue said. Best of all, she saw changes in the kids. She remembers two siblings who, for the first time, were allowed to walk alone to the park with walkie-talkies. Another child showed up every day for four weeks. Finally, his mother registered him.
The lessons at Eastview went far beyond serving.
“All sports teach good sportsmanship,” Cantellano said. “But, in tennis, you call your own lines. That teaches kids to call the ball correctly, to be honest. Either you’re going to be a cheater or you’re not.”
And something else: “There’s no clock in tennis, which promotes perseverance,” she said. “You always have an opportunity to come back and win.”
That goes for kids — and communities.
“Early on it was like: Who’s going to win? Are we going to be able to run urban tennis or are they going to stop it?” Cantellano said. “Last year was a huge change,” she said, noting that the program (stpaulurbantennis.org) returns in June to Eastview and will be added to Central Village in Frogtown.
Tetu agrees. “What is so cool is that, when little kids are doing the stretch drill, they’re really motivated and people are laughing. That was what was missing from the park,” Tetu said.
“Joy. We finally hear laughter in the park.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum
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