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Bridging the Divide Between Police and Community Through Tennis

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November 23, 2016 01:05 PM

By James I. Pressley/Special to USTA Southern, photos by Ron Cioffi/USTA Southern

In photo above, from left,, APD Officers Brian Webber, Andre Bent and Jarius Daughtery join with VAV kids for a photo, with volunteer photographer Laura Barnard.

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Officer Andre Bent reaches for a forehand.

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AYTEF Executive Director Kristina Felton dishes out mac and cheese.

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Casey McAfee has been a dedicated volunteer and coach.

It’s Friday night and, for nearly 100 youth and a handful of Atlanta police officers, the place to be is Washington Park.

During a six-week session in the spring and an 11-week session in the fall of 2016, the Atlanta Police Department teamed up with the Chattahoochee Foundation and Atlanta Youth Tennis and Education Foundation (AYTEF) to present the Volley Against Violence (VAV) Community Outreach Program for nights full of food, fun, games and tennis.

Originally created in Boston by the Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center and the Boston Police Department in 2009 with eight participants and one police volunteer, VAV has gone on to assist dozens of youth participants. The program includes teaching kids how to work as a team, set and achieve goals, respect one another and learn the importance of making an effort to try new things. The focus is on bringing local kids and law enforcement together for physical activity, informal mentoring, relationship building and the delivery of life-skills curricula.

Atlanta officers and program organizers agreed the interaction between inner-city youth and police helps build bridges during a year marred by violence by and on the police nationwide.

Kristina Felton, the AYTEF's executive director, talked about how the project came together. "The police were very interested in this program. We predominately worked through the Atlanta PAL (Police Athletic League) organization. The participating officers work in and around Washington Park; therefore, they have a vested interest in the community."

Kids ages 5 to 14 gathered at Washington Park Tennis Center, the first recreational facility designated for African Americans in Atlanta’s Westside.

One of the main staples of the program was the “vocabulary word of the day” presented to participants and officers before any balls were hit. Whether the word was “sportsmanship” or “discipline,” officers and the kids would spend the next two hours discussing what the assigned life-skill meant to them and incorporate it into a game-play setting.

After the vocabulary lesson, the children moved on to exercise, tennis drills and dinner. Many of the youngsters had never touched a racquet before but saw their tennis shots improve over the course of the program.

“The goal for the foundation was to introduce the kids to tennis and enforce a relationship with the Atlanta Police Department as role models that they could look up to,” Casey McAfee, one of the avid Chattahoochee Foundation volunteers and a local coach, said. “I originally went to VAV planning only to volunteer and literally became attached to these kids. I was so excited to talk to everyone about their lives, their struggles and witness everybody connecting on a more positive level. It was awesome.”

Local college tennis players were tapped to run drills at VAV. Georgia Tech tennis star Christopher Eubanks was one of volunteers. He grew up playing at Washington Park and now is competing on the USTA Pro Circuit. Eubanks rose to No. 7 in college tennis this year and was named ACC Player of the Year.

“Coming back to Washington Park was something I had been meaning to do for a while, but to do it with the entire team was really refreshing,” Eubanks said. “Every little memory and story started coming back to me from the good days out there all while we were serving as an intermediate piece to building a long-lasting relationship between the community and the police department.

“At the end of the day it was not about us, it was about the kids.”

The Georgia State and Emory women's tennis players also found time in their busy fall schedules to help serve as community liaisons.

“It was just a fun, light-hearted atmosphere, overall,” said assistant coach Lyndsay Shosho. “I think the girls took the night to heart. They realized that we have a talent and passion to share with others and how hungry these kids were to learn tennis. Our eyes were opened to the importance of giving back to others in the community.”

Sgt. John Chafee is with Path Force, a group of officers assigned to the Atlanta Beltline and adjoining parks, including Washington. He acknowledged the last 12 months of nationwide shootings by and on police was on the minds of the officers and the organizers.

Chafee explained, "With the climate right now toward police, we wanted to get involved in this program. The Atlanta Police Department has always been involved in our community. We have a Youth Development Program at the PAL supported now, more than ever, building a strong bond with the community. Chief George Turner makes it a priority."

VAV looks forward to continuing to empower local youth on and off the tennis court when sessions start back next spring, with the goal of expanding the program to other Atlanta locations.For more information on Atlanta’s Volley Against Violence, visit the VAV page on the AYTEF’s website: www.aytef.org.

 

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