Playing tennis on the streets isn’t something most people would encourage kids to do.
But an Ottawa non-profit organization is doing just that.
Danielle Smith started A Love of Tennis six years ago as a way to encourage children and youth in low-income areas of Ottawa to get active.
At first, she offered free tennis programs at schools. The kids loved it, but Smith soon realized it wasn’t enough.
Kids were getting a taste of the sport during school. But outside of school, their families lacked the money and resources to encourage them to continue — not just in tennis, but in any extracurricular sport.
With that in mind, Smith created the after-school Tennis on the Streets, a free offshoot of the school program, designed for children living in low-income areas.
“We literally play on the streets,” she says. “We put up nets and we get the kids to play in their neighbourhood.”
Each session lasts an hour and a half, two or three times a week, depending on the neighbourhood.
Smith estimates that more than 400 children and youth ages five to 19 have been part of A Love of Tennis, and of that, more than 100 have taken part in the Tennis on the Streets programming.
Both programs focus on six core values: honesty, integrity, respect, commitment, perseverance, and team work. Along the way, the team of volunteers works at building each child’s physical literacy, “so they can play anything, not just tennis,” Smith says.
And it’s working. Many of the children started with physical literacy scores in the 20s and 30s; now those same kids are scoring in the 80s and 90s.
For Smith, volunteering with the program is her way of making the world a better place. Her own three children — now grown up — were all avid tennis players when they were young, and Smith saw the power that sport had toward building their self-confidence both in school and out.
But working as a nurse for 25 years, she saw countless low-income families who were trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to see a way out.
An avid tennis fan, she figured the sport could provide a way for other kids to benefit as much as her own children had.
“Mostly what we were doing at the beginning was just getting these kids active and increasing their self-confidence, so they could do better in school,” she recalls.
“Some of them, they don’t think they can get out of their situation and break that cycle. But education is key to getting out of poverty.”
Smith now has a team of about 20 volunteers — some of whom started as children attending the programs — and she receives some private funding and grants, which go toward equipment and operations.
And she hopes one day to see the programs expand provincially and, perhaps, nationally.
“It’s so much fun,” she says.
“The kids don’t even realize they’re learning these great skills. They can’t wait for us to come back.”