New Year's Day 2005 in Washington D.C. was unseasonably warm, so Rachel Sandler (Iowan) and I (Minnesotan) decided to go out and play tennis. We were living in the Columbia Heights neighborhood just before the arrival of the Super Giant grocery store (and the sweeping transformations that would follow) and the closest tennis courts to us were a short walk away behind Raymond Elementary School. When we arrived, we saw the two courts were littered with glass. There were holes in the fences and only one net. We debated looking for another court, but instead started picking up the glass. Soon, Peron Williams, a neighbor, came over to offer us a push broom, and when we had cleared one court, we started to play. Peron stuck around to watch.
Afterward, Peron told us that the tennis courts had once thrived--with neighbors lining up to play--but that in recent years, the courts had been neglected, taken over by rough characters and drugs. Peron was glad to see the courts used for tennis again.
Rachel and I were fellows in AVODAH at the time: a social justice service corps dedicated to anti-poverty work and the exploration of "intentional community": living consciously and connectedly with others. We were both lifelong tennis players and had taught tennis in other settings. I suggested to Peron that we offer free tennis lessons to the neighborhood kids, giving them the chance to learn a new sport with the hopes of them taking back the court. Peron, who happened to be president of the local ANC, loved the idea and offered his support.
And how to make it stick? How to give kids more opportunities to play and develop their skills? How to celebrate the courts' renewal? How to draw attention to the need for new nets, a repaired fence, and repaved courts? How to hand over the tools of our play and sustain tennis at Raymond Rec even after our Monday night lessons ended?
Play Tennis Day began as an answer to these questions.
My fellowship placement that year was with the Behrend Builders Shelter Repair program, which was run out of the Community Service Center at the DC JCC. Behrend Builders helped me see the value of partnerships and community investment for creating sustainable change. Play Tennis Day's catalyst partnership happened when Peron Williams lent Rachel and I the broom. Next, Denise Skinner and the Washington Tennis Association recognized our common work and came on-board. As did Shaw District's Tennis at Shiloh Chuch Program. Peron brought the ANC, which reached out to then-City Councillor (and future DC Mayor) Adrian Fenty. We secured grants from Coca Cola and Clif Bar. Finally, the Howard University tennis teams agreed to join in. The week before Play Tennis Day, D.C. Parks and Recreation took action to repave the courts, mend the fences, and hang new nets. The stage was set for a celebration.
On the swelteringly hot morning of Sunday, July 17th, 2005, a dozen volunteers built a tennis wall under guidance from Behrend's skilled volunteers Kenton Campbell and Richard Feldman. By noon, a mural team made up of neighbors (including some walk-ups) and volunteers began painting a community mural on the wall led by artist Carrie Madigan (whom we found via Craigslist). At the same time, Denise Skinner and the Washington Tennis Association teamed with the Tennis at Shiloh Program to engage the neighborhood kids in tennis games and giveaways, competitions and free barbecue. There was music, ice cream, and fun for all who came together--many lives making an unlikely intersection through the work and play of Play Tennis Day. When the mural was complete, Peron, Rachel, and I shared our story and dedicated the wall. To cap the day, the Howard University men's and women's tennis teams played exhibition matches to inspire the kids to keep playing.
On the tennis wall, we painted this quote from American tennis great and humanitarian Arthur Ashe: "From what we get, we can make a living. What we give, however, makes a life."
In the years since, I sometimes wondered if I left the project too soon--not at its end, but at its very beginning. What if we had continued the lessons another year or more? What if we had set our sights on a more distant goal?
After I moved away, friends in D.C. would occasionally send me pictures of the tennis wall. Each one reminded me of what we had accomplished. But I also watched graffiti creep across the wall's surface, marring its images. This past winter, I visited D.C. and saw that the entire park at Raymond Recreation had been renovated, including a new artificial turf soccer field and a state-of-the-art playground. The space looked clean and inviting; so changed from when Rachel and I first visited. Also changed: instead of two tennis courts, there was only one. And the tennis wall was gone.
I asked around, but no one at the park that day knew if or how the wall had been discarded (I still hope to find out), nor did they remember how Raymond Rec looked before the renovation. So I lingered awhile, listening outside and in, then continued with my day. Places change. People move and move on. You know. You've wondered, too: what endures?
This weekend, I have been remembering Play Tennis Day and all the individuals who came together to support tennis and community at Raymond Rec. I remember each of them, how gladly they played and gave, how full our time together felt. I still believe that partnerships, vision, and person-to-person generosity are what make the biggest difference in our communities and lives.
Ten years ago, after we finished painting, we invited all of the kids present that day, many of whom had played at our Monday night tennis lessons over the previous months, to paint their hands and make a trail of handprints across the bottom of the mural.
I wonder if any of those kids still play tennis. I wonder if they remember how it felt to press their wet, paint-covered hands against that plywood wall.
(click below to read PDFs of articles published in a local NW D.C. newspaper about our free tennis lessons at Raymond Rec and about Play Tennis Day)