Somewhere in Centre Court stadium at the Rogers Cup Tuesday morning, there was a group of 25 inner city youth taking in world class tennis for the first time.
Lead by Stephan Harris, Program Manager and coach at the Philpott Inner City Children’s Fund, the opportunity is one he says, if not for the organization, may not have otherwise been afforded them.
“I think being here allows them to see where tennis can take you,” said Harris who leads the tennis summer camp. “It inspires them to play a little bit more. I know after today they’re going to want to play as hard as they can tomorrow.”
Partially supported by Tennis Canada, the program reaches over 6000 children age five to 15 annually providing fundamental tennis skills and the opportunity to play the game at no cost to their families.
“Yes, all of it’s free. Everything,” Harris said. “Racquets are provided. Balls are provided. All they have to bring is shoes, water and a smile.”
According to the organization’s executive director Richard Crowell, one of the core objectives of the program is to continue to provide more opportunities for representation at all levels of the sport.
“We’re looking at racial diversity but we’re also looking at gender balance as well,” Crowell said. “In 2015 only about 7% of our coaches were female. This past year we ran a leadership program to help train and develop more young kids from the community and we’re up to 35% female coaches. Diversity is a big part of what we’re trying to do.”
It’s also a huge part of what Harris is trying to do as a coach and is what he says keeps him coming back year after year.
“As a black coach I really want to open up the spectrum for people to show that tennis is accessible to everyone,” said Harris whose father is well known Toronto tennis coach Tam Heather. “Tennis is not about who has money, it’s a skill and if you have that skill it’s possible to achieve success.”
Funded mainly through grants and fundraisers, the staff hope the program will expand to reach more children throughout the year and support young athletes for as long as they want to continue with the program.
“We found that almost 98% of the families we work with want to continue in tennis but not all of them have the means or the ability to do so,” said Crowell. “Days like this are wonderful and it really kind of puts the pressure on us to try and grow the program and give them more opportunities to learn and play.”