Healthy Partnerships … Healthy Communities
By Sheryl McAlister
The beating heart of two tennis communities in South Carolina doesn’t come from the constant thud of a small yellow ball against the strings of a medium-sized racquet. The heart of these two towns comes from a couple of retired septuagenarians who have used the sport of tennis to transform the soul of their communities.
This isn’t hyperbole. On the other hand, they’re not curing cancer either. We’re talking tennis, folks. Seriously, what Bonnie Sue Duncan in the foothills and Barbara Jones in the lowcountry have done is nothing short of spectacular.
Jones returned to South Carolina a few years back to be closer to family and to build her dream home. As a tennis enthusiast, she faithfully attended matches at nearby Daniel Island every year and took a private lesson or two. But then something happened that transformed the way Jones and the St. George community viewed tennis. Jones used the sport as a vehicle for positive change, as a symbol of public policy and as a way to offer an alternate perspective on the world. Tennis – and Jones – changed the culture of a small southern town.
The Barbara and Grady Jones Tennis Center is an oasis in rural St. George. Its doors are open to anyone. Everything donated inside has a plaque attached thanking the donor. Not 200 yards away sits a subsidized housing complex. Some folks in town thought it was a bad idea to try to repair the old courts that sat in this place. Some folks thought “those people” would never use the courts. So, Jones went door to door and asked them to play. A few did, but most were just proud to be included. A mirror inside the women’s bathroom was donated by a previous resident. Jones guards the mirror like the crown jewels.
She has used tennis to help move kids from poverty to opportunity, to provide kids a feeder system to play high school tennis. She has bridged a racial divide in an otherwise polarized town. The county cuts the grass. The city pays the light bill. Everybody has a role, and Jones is its beating heart.
In Greer, Duncan is the leader of a strong team of volunteers and tennis players who have and live a very different life than some of the folks in rural South Carolina. There are not a lot of have-nots in this bunch, but there are a whole lot of generous people. And Duncan has led the way. She takes care of everybody. She makes sure people are well fed. She looks after her team captains because they have the most difficult volunteer job. She has always maintained the position that the league should support the local community and local youth. People trust her.
The philanthropic strategy of this Upstate group is so well integrated into the tennis competition, giving back is simply second nature. They love tennis. They also love their community and the opportunities that tennis has provided to give something back. In fact, not long ago Duncan was given a box of gently used tennis balls from a local college coach. She promptly mailed them to Jones.
These two towns could not be more different. And yet, they are strangely similar. It is their partnerships that make them work. It is the trust and teamwork these women leaders have fostered in their local communities that gets things done. It is their leadership that makes the difference.
Anybody who doesn’t give a hoot about tennis may read this and could care less. But consider this. Tennis is uniquely suited for all players of all ages and physical abilities. Wheelchair tennis is as common as professional play. And we have a resource in the United States Tennis Association which has as its sole mission to get people playing and keep people playing.
The USTA South Carolina is nestled in a Columbia neighborhood off Interstate 26 and serves the communities across the state with one goal: to promote and develop the growth of tennis. In the larger cities where tennis reigns supreme, tens of thousands of players take the courts for league play, recreation or collegiate competition. The competition can be fierce. Access to quality courts and instruction are critical to the game’s survival.
USTA is the governing body for tennis and promotes the sport at every single level. According to its website, the USTA is the “largest tennis organization in the world.”
Imagine the impact a single tournament could potentially have on a local community with that kind of backing. The annual US Open, the bastion of tennis talent from every conceivable location around the world, continues to be the primary funder for tennis programs all over the country. Grants available through USTA South Carolina, USTA Southern and USTA National are fulfilled every year and find their way into schools, after school programs and local communities.
Offered by USTA SC, the Tennis Apprentice program gets people off the couch and on the court. The Midlands’ Nan Smith is a tireless advocate for the sport and for Tennis Apprentice, and she helps to recruit new players through this entry level program. Her energy is only surpassed by her positive approach to building communities here with tennis as the hub.
League play is open to anyone from beginner to the advanced. The Tennis on Campus program is a club sport and wildly popular with kids who may have played in high school but weren’t quite ready for collegiate tennis. The junior programs focus on teaching kids early and retaining them through a robust Junior Team Tennis program.
We’re not here to argue the preference of one sport over another. This just happens to be World Tennis Day, and we are advocates for a sport that is open to everyone – rich or poor, able-bodied or not, country club or not. In some communities around this state and this country, there are public courts that can rival private ones. In other communities, the courts are in such bad shape you’d have to ask yourself what, in the name of Billie Jean King, happened?
Tennis is a sport a person can play for a lifetime. And while tennis can be played anywhere a net and a portable court (yes, that’s a thing.) can be set up, it’s best played outside in the open air on a court that has a net without holes in it and a playing surface free of obstruction, rocks and grass creeping up through the cracks.
Tennis, its own sort of religion, has offered sanctuary to many people for many reasons. One passionate advocate said her tennis community and her church community saved her when her husband died unexpectedly. She, and many others, have given back far more than tennis has given them.
Duncan is a retired police officer, and Jones is a retired nurse. I don’t know either of them well enough to know what their life’s plans were or whether their passionate commitment to tennis and all it offers them was a part of those plans. What I do know is that they each came from a selfless profession. They came from a place where others were served by their good works. St. George and Greer are lucky to have them.
Find your Duncan and Jones in your community. Contact us at the USTA South Carolina, even if you’ve never picked up a racquet. If you want to play, we’ll help you get there.
Sheryl McAlister is Director of Community Development for USTA South Carolina. Learn more about USTA SC at www.sctennis.com. Find yourself in the game.