Tennis Pro Turns International Teacher Leader: The Jake Agna Story
By Dr. Dorinne Dorfman, Principal
For the past two weeks, Mr. Jake Agna has teamed with physical education teacher Ms. Tammy Charbonneau in daily PE classes. Learning about his work throughout the city led me to interview him for Champlain’s Blue Note. For more information, visit: Kidsontheball.com.
DD: When did you start playing tennis? How did you start teaching tennis in Burlington?
JA: When I was four or five years old I started learning tennis. There were no junior rackets, but I was a big kid so could use a wooden racket. Both my parents were doctors. My dad was one of the best players around in the 1960s. We lived in a very small town in Ohio where tennis was huge. My biggest influence was Aunt Rose, though she wasn't my aunt. She would grab my hand and take me and all these kids across this bridge to real nice public courts to play tennis. We got some instruction, but the game is really what got me on the ball. I stayed in Ohio, but one really hot summer in 1983, I was teaching tennis in Cincinnati, and my wife came to Vermont for a visit. She loved it here, so I called the Quarry Hill Club in Burlington and they hired me over the phone. I had a resume by them, I was young, but I had huge jobs. When I was nineteen, I was the head pro at Queen City Racket Club in Ohio.
My own two girls were graduating from high school and I had a midlife crisis. I didn't grow up with tennis clubs; I had public parks. That’s why we started “Kids On The Ball” in 1999. We started working with The Edge to give kids the chance to play tennis who otherwise never could. Our program is based on play. I'm more worried about their citizenship than their actual tennis skills. If a student buys into the rules of a game in a fun way, that’s the best introduction to following rules. The rules are why we’re having fun. This is the nature of life. The game is, ‘You win some and you lose some.’ That’s what the game does for kids, many of whom have a “beat-up” background. They need order, and they want the order. Order calms people down. Anxiety levels can be high; the kids see what others have that they don’t. They need to learn about the building blocks needed to be successful. In tennis, you see the order and steps ahead for success. It’s not a blank slate. You can’t be successful unless you have action, reflection, and have more action. For a lot of kids, it’s only action. The kids who get the most out of the program are those who get to share their skills with others. Some kids can feed a ball to others, and that’s an important skill.
DD: Has this caught on anywhere else?
JA: The United States Tennis Association now has a national public school program. They format it by teaching tennis, but my approach is to just let kids play. I don't care about how they hold a racket, but if they want to get the ball over the net, they will hold it correctly. All you need is portable nets, low-compression balls, and junior rackets. These make the sport much more accessible to younger kids. The game is a vehicle to teach life skills.
DD: Where does Kids On the Ball offer tennis programs?
JA: We do after-school tennis in Burlington, So Burlington, the King Street Center, and the Boys and Girls Club. That hits a lot of kids. We have a lot of volunteers, adults and kids who get volunteer credit in high school. Another big project is in Cuba. We built ten courts at the national tennis center in Havana. That was the first brick and mortar project from America since Eisenhower. We started this project when President Obama was opening up Cuba. The model is like Habitat for Humanity, where volunteers build a project and spend time in the community. The volunteers pay their own way. Next spring, we go to New Orleans. We will take kids from the Lower Ninth Ward to city parks and do Kids on the Ball for a week. We will bring volunteers from Burlington. We hope to go to San Antonio too.
DD: How do you fundraise for such a big program?
JA: The amazing thing about Vermonters are, they’re supportive of things that are in all of our best interest. I don’t think I could have fundraised for this in Ohio. No other community would have raised that amount a money to help Cuban kids. If that embargo ever ends, our kids would learn so much from the Cuban children. They want to meet American children. I have taken teenagers down there. The Cuban youth have so much resiliency and a sense of fairness. They have a social contract for each other. They’ve been in a siege mentality for so long, that they all pull together. They are for the group, not so much the individual. In Cuba they play tennis so much. They were way more accomplished than our kids. They just play without distractions, like they don’t have cell phones.
DD: What else would you like to share?
JA: Tennis is a game for everyone. I want us to be in a position where it’s fair from the start. We want to bring tennis to the street level, like basketball, soccer and baseball are. Right now tennis is only at the club level, and that keeps us from moving forward nationally. We need to bring tennis opportunities to everybody. A little girl in Cuba drew a picture of the U.S. and Cuba with the words: “Building bridges, connecting people, one ball at a time.” That’s our mantra, along with, “Just keep playing the next ball.”
Champlain Parent Elzy Wick Wins Physical Activity Leadership Award
By Tammy Charbonneau, Physical Education Teacher
The Society of Health and Physical Educators of Vermont (SHAPE) “recognizes outstanding individuals who actively promote lifelong health and physical activity.” Ms. Elzy Wick was recognized at the SHAPE State Conference On October 20. As a community leader she has grown our Mini-Milers Program, coaches each practice, and organizes the Champlain Community Fun Run. She has helped Champlain students participate in the Penguin Plunge and is an integral part of the BlackWatch Premier Soccer Club. She is an annual participant and supporter of Zoe’s Race. She is a certified aqua instructor as well as a certified surfset instructor. She serves on the Board of King Street Youth Center and the Vermont Midi Composition Board, and is active on the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation. Ms. Wick is an exceptional example of leadership in physical fitness, and I am proud to have her as a parent at Champlain Elementary School.
Champlain School Store Grand Opening!
On Monday, November 20, students will be opening their school store. It will be open on conference day from 8am to 6pm in the Champlain School lobby. They will be selling school supplies and all items cost ten cents to one dollar. Parents need to be with their children to buy something. All proceeds from the sales will go towards making improvements on our school playground such as repaving the four-square game, adding hopscotch, and making the zip line smoother. This will help all students at Champlain have fun on our playground. Thank you! - The School Store Management