Teenager merges tennis with community service to help those in need

October 27, 2015 11:04 AM

By Ashley Marshall, USTAFoundation.com

Drake Coleman was just 13 years old when he decided to make a difference in his neighborhood. So he took what he knew – tennis – and identified who he wanted to help – young refugee children – and merged the two to create something that has since made the difference in the lives of many.

The result of Coleman’s thoughtfulness, diligence and hard work is First Serve, a National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) program in his hometown of Abilene, Texas. The program launched in 2013 to help elementary-age youngsters from Rwanda settle into the city and make new friends.

Located in central Texas, Abilene is a three-hour drive west of Dallas and welcomes approximately 1,000 new refugee families fleeing from conflict each year, primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Bhutan and Uganda. And while the International Research Center (IRC), a nonprofit based in more than 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities, helps get these families back on their feet with housing, jobs and education, Drake noticed that many of the programs were designed for adults.

Looking to remedy that, Drake reached out to the IRC to share his passion for tennis, and then he got down to business. Working closely with IRC, he helped write a grant proposal, establish a curriculum and secure introductory equipment and court time.

“I had this idealistic 13-year-old-boy idea about wanting to do something to help,” said Drake, now 15.  “We decided to incorporate our family passion of tennis with our passion for service. The pieces just fell into place."

Said Drake’s mom, Cathie Coleman, "I thought it was a great idea, but I wasn’t sure we could pull it off. But the USTA has been a great resource. They helped set us up as a CTA (Community Tennis Association) and a kids club, and they sent us equipment. Drake wanted to see something in action rather than just donating to something. He wanted to see the direct benefit.”

With the help of USTA funding and donations from local businesses, Drake was able to begin hosting free lessons and pairing tennis instruction with life skills to assist refugee between the ages of 7 and 14 with the transition to life in a new country. The initial classes were held in apartment complex parking lots with pop-up nets until the groups got so big that they had to move to two community courts at Abilene’s Rose Park Tennis Center.

The popularity of First Serve has led organizers to divide the classes into two groups – beginners and advanced players. In total, around 25 players participate each season. Each child has to be accompanied by a parent, which further helps integrate the family into the community – and also creating a tennis community of its own.

“I think it has made a huge impact,” IRC volunteer coordinator Katie Tan said. “We love it because it introduces families to the town and the community. It breaks down barriers. It has had a really big impact, and now you’re seeing kids grow and bloom through it. It gets them connected to the community and helps them feel a part of something. It helps them feel welcome.”

Drake's effort have not gone unnoticed. In 2013, he was featured on Chevy Hometown Kids. And this fall, his story was told on the Disney Channel as part of the Emmy-nominated miniseries, "Make Your Mark."

"I’m just trying to do my best to help," he said. "And I hope that if someone sees that, they might be motivated to follow in my footsteps.”

Some already have. This year, with Drake attending boarding school in Asheville, N.C., First Serve teamed up with Abilene High School, where varsity players donate time to help coach the children during two eight-week seasons in the spring and fall. And through NJTL and the USTA Foundation, the program secured additional funding to provide scholarships for up to three players each year to play in Abilene’s Junior Team Tennis league.

“I know as a community, we would not typically have this cross-cultural, cross-socioeconomic spectrum,” said Drake, whose mom has helped run the program while he is away at school. “But this program has brought people from all walks of life into a community that is very small. The NJTL offers them a chance to connect with the community.”

“It turns out that tennis is just a by-product," Cathie added. "The kids coming here were from such depravity that somebody paying attention to them and giving them a safe place to be was huge. It gave them a place to meet friends and be outside and be safe. It was more than just being able to play tennis. I think it has been great for the kids and great for this community. I’m proud of him.”



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