Atlanta NJTL's Kennedy is more than a coach to inner-city youngsters

Sam Kennedy
November 11, 2015 10:49 AM

By Ashley Marshall, USTA Foundation

Having grown up in a rough North Carolina neighborhood, Sam Kennedy knows firsthand the important role sport can play in a youngster’s childhood.

Now, Kennedy is working with hundreds of Atlanta youths every year, and he says the joy he gets from helping them is greater than any paycheck.

Kennedy is more than just the head coach at the Atlanta Youth Tennis and Education Foundation (AYTEF), a National Junior Tennis and Learning program in Georgia’s state capital – he’s also a mentor, a father figure and, to many, a hero.

In fact, one of his students, 16-year-old Camille Quick, paid tribute to Kennedy in her award-winning entry in the Arthur Ashe Essay Contest this summer, describing how her coach embodies the spirit of giving back to the community through tennis and education, just as NJTL co-founder Charlie Pasarell did.

“It was like a $1,000,000 paycheck,” said Kennedy (pictured above on the far left with Camille and her family at the US Open). “That’s the paycheck, that’s the reason we do what we do. That’s when you know you’re doing something good.

“It’s gratifying to know I’ve touched someone’s life and made their life better. Tennis is about saving and changing lives. It’s not just about playing the sport; it’s deeper than that. We’re changing lives and helping create doctors and lawyers, and I’m thankful for this opportunity to serve. That’s what it’s all about.”

Kennedy first began working as a head coach with the AYTEF, the nonprofit arm of USTA Atlanta, in October 2009, but his background working with disadvantaged youngsters goes beyond that. 

A two-sport athlete in high school, Kennedy, who starred on the tennis court as well as the basketball court, moved from Greensboro, N.C., to Atlanta in 1986 and spent the next decade working at the Boys and Girls Club of Atlanta. In 1997, he took over the management of the South Atlanta Community Tennis Association to continue his outreach work among multicultural and low-income neighborhoods of the city.

Upon joining the AYTEF as the head coach and life skills coordinator, Kennedy expanded the foundation’s programing to include more parks and recreation departments and additional Boys and Girls Clubs and schools in the area. He also started holding events at the larger 24-court South Fulton Tennis Center; these clinics and classes developed into one of just nine USTA Excellence programs in the country.

The Excellence Program is offered through a combination of USTA grants and NJTL funding and brings the most promising young players from its nine top-performing programs together for additional training and mentoring.

“He’s personable and you know he cares about the kids both on and off the court,” AYTEF Director of Community Outreach and Programs Cee Jai Jones said. “He has that heart for kids and he won’t let anything stand in the way of their success. He’s the epitome of that awesome role model that every kid needs growing up. He knows the importance of education and the importance of the lessons that the sport of tennis can teach.”

The AYTEF started in 2003, the result of initiatives initially developed to coincide with the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. The city’s organizing committee wanted to expose at-risk and underprivileged youngsters to non-traditional sports like tennis, handball and lacrosse, so it created the Inner City Games. These programs partnered with schools in the years following the Olympics and, in 2003, the AYTEF was established to extend the reach even further under the umbrella of USTA Atlanta.

Serving downtown Atlanta and the immediate suburbs to the south of the city, the foundation worked with almost 1,100 children between the ages of 5 and 18 last year alone between its after-school programs, Play Days, Junior Team Tennis events and workshops.

Around 90 percent of the children are African-American, and almost 70 percent of them come from single-parent homes.

“I grew up in a rough, tough situation. I was poor,” said Kennedy, whose sons Zack and Sam play tennis collegiately at Georgia State and Columbus State, respectively. “When I got to Atlanta and started working with the Boys and Girls Club, it was like being back home. I wanted to help them become the best they could be, and tennis was the carrot to get them involved in education and community.

“I was from a similar situation and sport was my way out. If I didn’t have basketball, I would have been involved with drugs and I’d probably be in jail by now.”

The AYTEF hosts classes and programs seven days a week across 15 different sites in the city. Kennedy coordinates a dozen other coaches to best serve the children in the area, most of whom are between 8 and 14 years old.

The AYTEF receives funding from the USTA Foundation, which supplements the income the nonprofit organization raises itself each year. Every February, it hosts a Serving Winners fundraiser, which began four years ago as a luncheon and has since expanded to include a dinner, gala, pro-am, silent auction and kids’ clinic. This year, the event raised around $30,000. The AYTEF also has an annual online fund campaign which runs as part of Georgia Gives Day each November.

These funds go directly to supporting and expanding the on-court programming and off-court mentoring that has helped Kennedy reach so many youngsters over the past six years.

“Sam is a great guy and a great father, and he is a father figure to so many of our kids here, too,” Jones said. “He’s a gentle giant who's been able to raise a lot of champions in the past few years. The kids look up to him. Sam is somebody that embodies the giving back spirit and that is what he wants the kids to aspire to as well."



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