Marjana Bidwell was born to serve

August 4, 2015 02:44 PM


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By Ashley Marshall,

Marjana Bidwell grew up in a rough neighborhood in Arbor Hill, N.Y., outside Albany, an area defined by gun violence, drug abuse and gang culture. The tennis court was her safe haven.

Today, that same once-shy African-American girl who wore beads in her hair to mimic Serena Williams is making history in commanding the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the United States Army, the famed “The Old Guard.”

Capt. Bidwell started playing tennis when she was 7 years old at 15-LOVE, a youth development organization in Albany that is part of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network. She wanted to make new friends and have fun. Her parents wanted to keep her safe. 15-LOVE, which ran a program down the block from Bidwell’s house, seemed a natural fit.

The nonprofit organization is a year-round program that combines on-court tennis lessons with off-court life skills and educational sessions ranging from healthy eating and book distribution to college preparation and leadership programs. It caters to children as young as 4 years old and offers both adult and family lessons so that parents and children can learn and play together.

“It’s really amazing,” said Bidwell, now 31, who has a 3-year-old son, Aidan, with husband John M. Bidwell Jr. “I could not talk about my own career successes without acknowledging the impact it had on my life. [The instructors] wanted to give us a fighting chance and show us we can be better.”

That was especially important around Arbor Hill, which, Bidwell said, “at that time, was not a really nice place to live. There was a lot of gun violence and teenage pregnancy and deaths. It seemed like every other week there was a murder – that is how bad it was. I would hear a gun shot behind where we were playing tennis and I would run home. It was a dangerous area … but it felt like we were immune on the court.”

The oldest of Aaron Mair and Maria Pacheco's three daughters, Bidwell graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2007. She has served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2013 and Iraq in 2009-10 and has received several medals such as the Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal and the NATO Medal.

In June, she took command of the Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment. In doing so, she became the first African-American woman to lead a company in the 200-year history of the unit, which serves as the official escort to the president and conducts funerals in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

At a ceremony held to commemorate the change of command, Lt. Col. Ryan Morgan said Bidwell "is completely capable and ready for this challenge,” according to the Albany Times-Union. "You have a great reputation, and I have no doubt that you will continue to live up to it."

15-LOVE was started in Albany in June 1990 as part of the Ashe-Bollettieri Cities (ABC) Program which tried to connect with inner-city children. Today, the program operates 13 sites across New York’s Capital Region, features 26 members of staff (including 18 instructors) and has impacted more than 45,000 children in its 25-year history.

Bidwell, who was part of 15-LOVE’s excellence program and later taught part-time at the organization, remains an avid member of the group. Despite moving away from the city more than a decade ago, when she was accepted into West Point, Bidwell’s story still resonates with the instructors and the children they work with. When she was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, youngsters from the Arbor Hill program sent hand-made cards and care packages to her base.

“They all felt this immense pride that she came from their neighborhood,” said 15-LOVE Executive Director Amber Marino. “We have kids who will be the first in their family to go to college and we have had others who went on to become social workers, teachers, lawyers, doctors.  We’re making a difference in kids’ lives.”

In 2014, the USTA awarded 15-LOVE around $38,000, with Foundation grants, corporate sponsors and individual donations making up the majority of the other $350,000 needed to keep the program running. The city of Albany provided an additional $7,500 via a Community Development Block Grant – the only government funding 15-LOVE receives – but that will be cut from the city’s budget next year.

“There’s nothing like it,” says Bidwell, who remembers meeting Arthur Ashe when he ran a clinic in Arbor Hill when she was young. “15-LOVE is one of things Arthur Ashe had a dream about what it could do. If he could see it now, it has been truly realized. He single-handedly had this vision and I’m sure it has changed the course of people’s lives. I’m living proof. I would not be where I am today without it.

“As a child and a teen, I was just having fun. I didn’t realize until I was an adult how much it impacted me. It made me into a young adult that was driven to apply for school and it gave me confidence to believe in myself. It defined me as a child and teenager in the same way that the army defines me now as an adult."

For more information on the USTA Foundation’s NJTL network, visit the NJTL homepage.

And to support the USTA Foundation’s NJTL network in their efforts to serve up dreams for individuals such as Marjana Bidwell, donate now.




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