Inaugural USTA Foundation Impact Conference invigorates and inspires NJTL leadership

Attendees at the USTA Foundation Impact Conference.
October 14, 2022 11:00 AM

Leaders from the USTA Foundation’s expansive National Junior Tennis and Learning network gathered en masse last week for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic at the inaugural USTA Foundation Impact Conference.

The first-of-its-kind event brought together 180 leaders from more than 90 NJTL chapters at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. from Oct. 5-7 for workshops, lectures and consultations, as well as mentorship and networking opportunities. The three-day conference also featured breakout sessions where attendees learned how to measure their organizational impact, the anatomy of a successful non-profit, the state of education and its effect on NJTL chapters, and how sports like tennis are uniquely positioned to help under-resourced youth overcome adversity and trauma.

Though a long time in the making, the event was worth the wait, according to the USTA Foundation’s senior director and head of programs and social impact Rob Howland.

“We couldn't be happier with the success of the inaugural USTA Foundation Impact Conference,” he said. “The feedback on the conference was phenomenal. Chapters expressed that it was a really great investment, not only financially, but for them to also take the time to come here.

“The best part of the conference for me was seeing chapters of many different sizes mingle, engage in peer-to-peer learning, and really get rich content that they could take home and help enrich the lives of kids in their local communities.”

After nearly three years of making virtual connections, chapter leaders and other organizational representatives said they were grateful for the opportunity to be face-to-face with their peers, and commiserate on their shared challenges, goals and solutions. Lori James, executive director of Chicago’s Love to Serve Tennis and Education Foundation, noted that the conference was also a physical manifestation of the year-round access that NJTL chapters have to USTA Foundation leadership—something that particularly proved invaluable as they navigated the effects of the pandemic.

“It’s so amazing for us to be affiliated with, and work so closely with, the governing body of tennis,” she said. “I’ve been around a long time, over 20-something years, and just to know that you’ve got the support—that the guiding hands are right there, a phone call away—it’s just been amazing to have all sorts of resources, educational tools, everything you need to run a successful program.”

The conference was also beneficial for USTA and USTA Foundation executives including USTA CEO and executive director Lew Sherr, who’s in the midst of his first year at the helm of the organization after being elevated to the top job in March.

Sherr recalled visiting the Pete Brown Junior Tennis Program, an NJTL based out of Harvard Park in Los Angeles, earlier this year, and it was a moment that stuck with him. Attending the conference and speaking to its participants, he said, afforded him the opportunity to share his gratitude with them for the role they play in advancing the organization’s mission around the country.

“I’ve said this to many of my colleagues, but in 12 years at the USTA, that was the single best day, the single best experience I've had as a part of this organization,” Sherr said of his visit to PBJTP. "It was the embodiment of all of the work that we do ... Young kids on courts. Young kids smiling, playing on courts and learning the game. They've got a high-performance program that is churning out Division I scholarship athletes. The folks that are teaching the kids started out in the program and they've come back to support the program.

“It's just such a gratifying feeling to be able to witness what they're doing to create a safe space for kids to be kids. To know that we play a part in that, it just feels great to be a part of it and makes you want to work harder.”

While Sherr was thrilled to see the positive effects that NJTLs can have even in one afternoon, others, like Mavi Sanchez-Skakle, have made them their life’s work. Previously the executive director of the New HYTEs NJTL chapter in New Haven, Conn. for seven years, Sanchez-Skakle has been the head of diversity, equity and inclusion for the USTA’s New England section since January.

Staging and attending conferences such as this one, she says, are crucial in efforts to establish, fortify and grow both the current and next generation of diverse grassroots and youth tennis programs.

“Something that the average person might not really understand about an NJTL chapter is how we become a very connected family, and that’s staff, volunteers, board members, our coaches, you name it,” she said. “We become connected to the USTA Foundation team, and so the bonds that we create are really what make a chapter strong.

“Being here, I had the opportunity to see my friends from Colorado, from Texas, from California, from Florida. I'm up in Connecticut, and it's one thing to see each other via a video. It's quite another to have the time to say hello, and sit down and have a real chat. It's all based out of this one conference. We're walking away with more than just resources. We have reignited friendships and bonds.

“Being back from the pandemic, being able to see my peers, for me, [was] like coming home. My heart is really in the community, so to be able to sit in front of my other peers and just have conversations, share challenges, best practices, and really just having a pulse for what's really going on in the youth community, it's been wonderful.”

While Howland said he hoped chapter leadership took away lessons that will help their organizations grown and evolve, USTA Foundation chief executive Dan Faber stressed that the effect on those who put on events like this is equally as profound. 

“You cannot walk away without having just this incredible feeling that we really are making an impact through the sport of tennis, and then we bring in education, and that really is a lifelong impact," Faber said.

“The chapter leaders and coaches, they're the ones doing the work. They are the people making the difference in the lives of the kids and the families that we serve. That is by far the best part of this conference is just having one-on-one conversations, group conversations, hearing what they're doing, and feeling good that we play some kind of role in that and providing the resources that they need in order to be impactful.

“I'm so proud to have an opportunity to be a part of this organization and to lead what I would say is the best-in-class staff and Board of Directors. There's nothing more rewarding than to watch the transformation of a staff member going from, 'I just got a job,' to 'I am impacting the lives of people.' It's just been really fun to watch staff members learn the power of what we're doing and be just so dedicated and excited to do what they do, and that is to help others. There's nothing better than working for the USTA Foundation, and I believe we have the best to do that."



Print Article Email Article Newsletter Signup Share

© 2024 by USTA Foundation Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.