Agna breaks barriers, brings tennis to Cuba

June 22, 2015 02:12 PM

By Alex Hinckley, special to

"Motivated," "enthusiast," "caring" and "role model" are just a few words used to describe Jake Agna by those who know him best. Agna has dedicated much of his life to introducing the sport of tennis to children in Burlington, Vt. Now, he is taking his passion to Cuba.

The foundation of his newly found mission was laid more than 15 years ago at King Street Center in Burlington. The not-for-profit organization exists, “to provide children and families the core life-building skills necessary for a healthy and productive future.”

As a part of a refugee settlement city, King Street Center serves a rich, ethnic mix of people from countries around the world. Many of the children who utilized the center did not have tennis equipment, let alone shoes or proper clothing. Most had never heard of tennis. When Agna joined the team in 2000, he partnered with local organizations to provide the children with the basic necessities and tennis equipment. But he knew there was so much more he could do.

That year, along with former King Street Development Director Kathy Davis, a new program was born: "Kids on the Ball."

“We started Kids on the Ball because we saw a dire need for it,” said Agna. The in-school, after-school and summer programs provide children with both tennis and education, making it a natural fit for the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, which provides free or low-cost tennis and education programming to more than 225,000 under-resourced youth on an annual basis.

Recently, after many years running the Kids on the Ball program, Agna was ready to try something new.

“I saw a feature on Cuba during a Sunday morning news show," he said. "Cuba looked wonderful. I told my wife it would be an interesting place to see and to find out what the tennis was like there.”

That was early in 2015, when the travel bans were relaxed between the United States and Cuba. From that moment, Agna made it his mission to get to Cuba with tennis equipment in hand.

He contacted the Cuban American Tennis Association, who set up the trip to Havana. USTA New England and USTA Vermont also donated equipment.

“Jake is an amazing person," said USTA Vermont President Donna Griffin. "We have been supporting him for years in Vermont and now that he wants to spread the game internationally, we are helping him as much as we can. He is developing tennis and goodwill between our countries, both are worthy goals."

At the end of April, Agna was off to Cuba with racquets, portable nets and other youth tennis equipment.

“The first meeting I had there was a real eye opener for me,” said Agna. “Their grass-roots program was great. Honestly, I thought I was going to go there and start tennis. That wasn’t the case at all.”

Although tennis was already established, there was a severe lack of equipment and proper courts for the Cuban children.

“The courts were in some of the worst shape I’ve seen. There were cracks everywhere and weeds growing out of them,” explained Agna. “I couldn’t believe how beat up the equipment was. They hadn’t opened a new can of balls in over a year.”

Many of the same struggles the children in Cuba are facing are what he has seen over the years in his Kids on the Ball program. “I am drawn to these people. I was so in awe of their positive attitudes despite having very little,” Agna said.

Agna described the Cuban children as very well-behaved and great young players. He thinks with the proper equipment, tennis could change their lives. “The game of tennis can bring order to these children’s lives," he said. "It gives them the building blocks to be successful beyond the tennis court.” He has experienced that first hand back in Vermont.

Aside from his on-court experiences, Agna met with the Cuban Tennis Federation and the Ministry of Sports, whose main goal is to rebuild the National Tennis Center. Through these discussions, it was obvious the best way to help out was to provide better tennis equipment and assist with court repair and construction. Agna was tasked with finding private donors upon arriving back in the United States.

Knowing his work in Cuba was not done, Agna returned to Vermont and hit the ground running. He told his story to the local media, his vast tennis network, friends, family and anyone else who would listen. Soon, the donations started rolling in.

One of Jake’s longtime friends and majority owner of Green Mountain Coffee took a strong interest in his cause. “Bob Stiller has been changed by tennis. He understands what the sport can do. His kids and his wife were in my program," Agna said. "I told him about what I saw in Cuba and he really heard me.”

On behalf of the Stiller Family Foundation, Agna received a check for $250,000 for his Cuban project. “He is an amazing guy,” said Agna. “Some of that money will be set aside for constructing and refurbishing courts.”

Now, with the proper funding and his intense passion, Agna is set to embark on his second journey to Cuba, June 24-29. His wife and three others from the Cuban-American Friendship Society are making the trek.

“This has inspired me at a time when I needed it,” said an emotional Agna. “I have a true heartfelt feeling to help them out.”

On this trip, Agna is hoping to organize the court repairs and construction and reach some outlying areas. He is also thinking long term. “As Cuba opens up, I want to get an exchange program going.  Cuban kids can come up to Vermont and play in tournaments and some of our kids can go down there to learn from them.”

The work to elevate the sport in Cuba is far from over. Agna said he is happy to lead the charge and welcomes anyone who wants to join in the efforts.


Alex Hinckley wrote this original story for the USTA New England website. To see the original story on the New England page, click here.



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