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Non-profit tennis group aims to give at-risk kids confidence and success

Posted by boston.com  December 18, 2013 04:17 PM

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Boonanza Trivia 3 (2).JPG
Tenacity students play Bonaza Trivia. Left to right: Joery Cyriaque, Jameson Francois, and Jonathan Cazang

Richard Wilson was removed from his home at 16 and put in a state home for boys. For two years he couldn’t see his family regularly. A local non-profit helped him find a way back home.

“I grew up a lot with the support of Tenacity. Ned, in particular, gave me a space to go to for his support, a place to hang-out at Thanksgiving and Christmas, a place to get away . . . to step back from the situation,” said Wilson.

“Ned” is Ned Eames, founder and president of Tenacity, a charity that he started in 1999. Eames was a management consultant with a special interest in organizational development, and, briefly, a tennis pro.

The non-profit serves the Boston public school system. With a combination of academics, life coaching, world experiences, and tennis, it gives at-risk inner-city students supplementary learning, life skill development, educational field trips, and athletics to help them make it through high school and college. It partners with five schools to provide in-school and after-school programs to about 1,000 students from elementary through high school and post-graduate degrees. In the summer it also provides reading and tennis instruction to thousands of children.

The purpose of the charity is to “give kids the loving support and structure that they deserve,” said Eames.

Tenacity “was a support system for every part of my life whether it be academically, financially, or emotionally… It’s made me a more independent person who can do things on his own. I really get that confidence from the support I’ve gotten through Tenacity,” said Wilson.

At 18 Wilson moved back home with his mom where he still lives today. He went on to finish high school. After trying several colleges, he will graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the spring of 2014 with a degree in communications. He has paid for his post-secondary degree partially through a scholarship from the charity.

Eames points to Wilson as exemplary of his hopes for the organization’s kids. Wilson was a student in the program since its beginning, and he participated throughout his youth. Today “he’s finding his way to digest and make sense of his world,” said Eames.

Wilson is one of many success stories. Over 95% of Tenacity students graduate from high school while 70% is the average Boston high school graduation rate. Also, 80% of their participants enter college.

Over his 14 years leading the non-profit it “has always been about two things,” said Eames. “First, it has always had a strong focus on the academic school year, life skills, and some tennis…And then we always had a big summer program.”

Tenacity focuses its educational programming on the middle school years because children are old enough to participate seriously in its intensive Middle School Academy and young enough to try a new sport, according to Eames. His staff works hand-in-hand with teachers and administrators in middle schools to create individual student study plans for reading comprehension, vocabulary, and journaling.

The help is appreciated by Michael Johnson, assistant principal of Mario Umana Middle School Academy, which partners with the non-profit.

“We certainly can only do so much in the course of a normal school day,” said Johnson. “Tenacity supplements and complements us…They attend regular meetings with teachers to develop individual study plans… And they link what is going on here to the home. They do direct work with the families.”

The organization’s family engagement program consists of two family visits a year, four family workshops, and regular calls home.

“The only way to do this is to build relationships with families,” said Eames.

Wilson found the family support important: “My mom has always been a definite advocate of education. But she also didn’t have all the resources and didn’t know many ways to find those resources. Without Tenacity I may not have been as successful as I am now.”

The non-profit fills in where parents need help. “Parents have a lot going on…We have a supportive role,” said Brian Tuttle, director of programming.

The overarching goal of the organization’s programming, according to Tuttle, is to provide kids with a caring adult in addition to their parents. Research shows that kids are looking for and will respond to positive reinforcement from a role model. With a ratio of one adult staff member to four students, Tenacity is in a position to help when parents don’t have the time.

In addition to its academic and family support roles, the charity gives students exposure to athletics, which they may never have had, through its tennis program. Tuttle noted that the tennis gives students much more opportunity to exercise than they get in most schools. Some schools provide only 40 minutes every two weeks.

Tennis is also a mechanism for how to be successful in school.

“It’s a big confidence builder,” said Johnson. “Even if you don’t have success in the classroom you can still have success in athletics. And if over time you keep working at it and improving the tide will turn. If you practice well in the athletic arena then you can take something from that and use it in the class room and vice versa.”

The tennis activities are enabling students to meet other kids. “It’s a great sport for networking and meeting people – the perfect game for both athletics and social,” said Wilson.

In the summer Tenacity expands the tennis program to 26 tennis court sites in Boston with 5,000 children participating. It’s combined with a reading program. The aim is to keep kids off the streets and to maintain their reading level between school years during the summer.

What’s next for Tenacity? Within five years it would like to be serving 2,000 students and get more than 75% of its high school graduates to finish college. It would like to partner with more Boston schools, expand its academic programming to include subjects beyond literacy – such as math – and jointly develop with schools indoor multi-purpose structures to increase the space capacity for programs.

“We are growing the organization to the point where we used to be the ‘little program that could’ and now we are a little bigger in the city and we want to have a pretty big footprint,” said Tuttle.

Norm Williams is a graduate journalism student at Harvard.

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