When the balls start flying inside the tennis courts at various rec facilities throughout Victoria, so does the enthusiasm of the children learning how to play the sport.
With a lot of patience, Jimmy Perry Costamagna always teaches the fundamentals of tennis before any games are played. Seeing his students make progress after eight weeks fills him with pride.
“You see kids that don’t even know how to swing a racket and at the end they’re having a competitive rally with another kid,” said Costamagna, program director with Victoria Society for Kids at Tennis (KATS).
“As long as they are happy with everything, go home with big smiles and high fives, to me it’s pretty much mission accomplished.”
In the last 18 months, 2,000 kids throughout Greater Victoria have learned to play tennis thanks to KATS. The team of 12 unpaid professional instructors and 40 volunteers have committed hundreds of hours for lessons at community centres, social agencies, schools and the city’s department of parks and recreation to provide free tennis lessons to financially disadvantaged children.
Sy Silverberg, the founder and general manager of KATS, was motivated to start the program after learning how physically out of shape many of today’s children are. A report card on participation among children in Canada gave a D- for the third year in a row, noted Silverberg, and child obesity and diabetes is growing at an alarming rate.
A retired doctor, Silverberg was shocked by the information and since he and his wife were looking for ways to give back to the community, they realized his love for tennis could be a good start.
“I thought there’s got to be a hundred kids in this town who can’t afford to take tennis lessons or buy equipment who could benefit,” said Silverberg, who began reaching out to community associations, social agencies and boys and girls clubs.
“I said you put together the group and we’ll show up with the equipment and instructors and run the classes.”
Drumming up interest hasn’t been a problem. During its first year, KATS reached 236 children, followed by 1,825 in its second year. It now works with 22 different community organizations, extending from Esquimalt to Sidney, and offers classes year round.
According to KATS, parents find tennis attractive for a number of reasons, such as the inexpensive equipment, free public courts throughout the city and the fact the sport is one of the safest to play.
But Silverberg said the program is about more than tennis, and the equipment is designed to make it easy for kids to quickly develop confidence in their athletic ability. One of the most inspiring students is a 10-year-old boy with no thumbs and one finger on each hand.
“Some kids are lucky and they can do any sport, but many are not…Not only does this encourage them to peruse tennis, but I think it encourages them to pursue all physical activity and that’s the goal,” said Silverberg, who never imagined the program would get this big.
“I thought I would have maybe 30 kids and this was going to be a nice retirement pastime, not a full time job.”
KATS was recently recognized for its contribution to the community by picking up the title of “best volunteer moment” on ParticipACTION and True Sport’s top 15 moments in Canadian sports for 2015. The list captures moments that exemplify the role sport plays in defining Canadian identity. KATS is also the recipient of the 2015 RBC Learn to Play grant.
For more information visit kidsattennis.ca.