Program tutors East Palo Alto kids and teaches life skills through tennis
Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Center hosts some of the sport's best-known players: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Mary Pierce and Kim Clijsters. But just beyond the tennis center's turnstiles, an intensive educational and sports program for disadvantaged kids is helping breed tomorrow's champions.
Taube Center is home to East Palo Alto Tennis & Tutoring (EPATT), an academic tutoring and tennis coaching program that pairs more than 100 children in grades K-12 with one-on-one with tutors to help develop the whole child.
Developed by former All-American player Jeff Arons of the Youth Tennis Foundation, the program began life in 1990 as a summer program in East Palo Alto. Seventeen years later, it has blossomed into a full-fledged learning center at Taube with classrooms, teachers and tennis professionals working together to help kids develop academic and life skills that are taking many beyond their wildest dreams.
Children who harbored little hope of finishing school or going to college are now being accepted into top universities, according to EPATT Executive Director Dave Higaki.
While raising grade-point averages is the main goal, tennis helps to raise children's self esteem and serves as a model for seeing incremental improvement, he said.
On the court, kids work with tennis professionals, honing their competitive skills, improving diet and nurturing their health, said Director of Tennis Octavio Delasobera.
On Wednesday afternoon, the green-sand courts across from Taube Center glowed with hundreds of yellow balls. Twenty-seven kids of various skill levels and ages practiced hitting balls over the net; a half-dozen of the more advanced players were engaged in playing sets.
Fatu Tupou, 12, a seventh-grader at St. Elizabeth Seton School, has been at EPATT since first grade. Every year, he has seen improvement, both in his game and his grades.
"I used to be a B and C student, now I get As and Bs. I couldn't understand the reading, but with the tutors, I now know how to read," he said.
"Most of these kids have never held a tennis racket," Delasobera, a former pro who played for a Paraguayan Davis Cup team, said.
"They deal with a lot of low self-esteem. They see a ceiling in their future. We try to keep it positive and encourage them in a way that is realistic," he said.
Tennis also provides life skills.
"We try to build healthy competition. They learn to control their emotions in a positive way," he said. "They learn to handle defeat in a constructive way."
Niki Ofa, 22, came up through the program and returned as an alumni coach. He was initially drawn to the program for the tennis and because all of his friends were participating, he said.
"I'm trying to make sure they don't make the same mistake I did -- of taking an opportunity of something you are good at, but you don't realize you have a talent, and you waste your talent," he said.
Ofa went to Foothill College for two years, and he is trying to build on his tennis skills with the hopes of turning pro, he said.
As good as many of the students become at playing tennis, few will emerge as stars destined for college tennis scholarships or professional competition. But some are getting into college, based on their academic scholarship, Higaki said. One girl who was in the program recently graduated from Stanford, and a boy graduated from Cal Poly Pomona. Adrian Amaral, a senior currently in the program, has just been accepted to Pomona College, St. Mary's, San Francisco State and Wooster, Higaki said.
"The subtle competition on the court rubs off -- even with grades," Lauren Banks, a tutor coordinator, said.
Each day, 100 tutors work one-on-one with students, carefully measuring their progress on everything from the state of organization in their backpacks to the completion of homework assignments and coordinating with schools on each child's progress, Higaki said.
Parents play a crucial role in the program, attending conferences, developing skills to keep their children focused on learning and taking turns preparing dinner, he added.
A maritime theme helps kids in a middle-school class track grade-point averages. An angry clam represents a 1.0; a smiling star 2.0; Nemo represents a 3.0 achievement; and a dolphin, "the smartest creatures in the sea," merits a 4.0, said Academic Director Kesha Weekes.
She said that a lack of skills isn't their real barrier to progress.
"They are all bright and capable, but for one reason or another, they don't possess the understanding of the path to success," she said.
Weekes has seen progress with her kids, she said. In the majority -- 60 percent -- she has seen an incremental increase. Twenty percent have grade-point averages that are hovering, and 20 percent fluctuate.
"Most of the time, the child has some complicated environmental issue or something that has to do with the home that sabotages their trajectory," Weekes said.
Viliami Talakai, a sophomore at Menlo-Atherton High School, is struggling with the recent suicide of a classmate and friend.
"Since then, I have lost interest in everything. Before, I couldn't wait until after school to go to play tennis, but now I'm down. I'm trying to gain interest now," Talakai said.
He credits EPATT with keeping him away from the streets.
"I've spent more time here than in East Palo Alto. It makes me a better person. ... I would've been a bad boy getting in trouble. (EPATT) tells me how important my future is," he said.
EPATT will have a fundraising dinner with a tennis tournament by the students on May 1 at Menlo Circus Club. Tickets are $300. For more information, call EPATT at 650-725-4450.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.