By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — It took a few practices, but after some effort, 6-year-old Evi was able to catch a bouncing tennis ball and balance it on her racquet without it falling off.
With the assistance of volunteer tennis coach Kent Hemingway, Evi was one of 13 children Thursday who was able to master a racquet control trick that is part of the early stages of learning to play the sport.
"I like playing tennis because I get to hit the balls," she said matter of factly while she waited for Head Coach Kamal Gusine of the United States Tennis Association to call for everyone's presence at the soon-to-come awards ceremony.
Thursday was the final day of an eight-session, five-week program that brought tennis to the Boys and Girls Club for the first time. The National Junior Tennis and Learning network is part of the overall plan of the USTA to bring tennis to under-resourced youth in the United States.
The Boys and Girls Club indoor sessions are extension of an all-volunteer outdoor program that teaches youths in Laconia, Franklin, Tilton, Belmont, Meredith and Gilford to play a sport that many will continue to play in some form for the rest of their lives.
Thanks to a grant from the USTA obtained by member and Laconia Daily Sun Publisher Adam Hirshan, for two years now volunteers from the area, most of whom are members of Gilford Hills Tennis Club, have been teaching tennis at local tennis courts in cooperation with local parks and recreation departments.
The grant provides age-appropriate racquets, slightly larger tennis balls, lower nets and small miscellaneous items for the children to use while playing. At the end of the session, the participants get to keep the racquets.
According to Hemingway, the program at the Boys & Girls Club is different than the outdoor summer program in that the children participate in an educational component for about 30 to 45 minutes after their arrival at the club but before they all go into the gym to play tennis.
Hemingway said one young man who liked playing chess and doing math problems with him decided he would take up an offer to go upstairs and play some tennis. He been playing ever since.
A few of the Boys & Girls Club participants, like 8-year-old Connor, also play tennis in the summer league and, according to Hemingway, are showing some real aptitude for the game.
According to the NJTL website, students who play tennis are less likely to use drugs and alcohol and are far less likely to be obese. Gusine and his coaches also teach sportsmanship, for which there is an award, team-building, and learning to help others. There are usually four to five adults coaches at each session.
USTA member Bob Rondstadt said the members of the local association will be meeting with the executive director of the Central Boys and Girls Clubs in Concord to see determine if the program can be extended in Laconia this spring and expanded to clubs in Concord, Franklin and Penacook.
Evie gets a high five from Coach Kamal Gosine with Coach Bob Rondstat during their tennis club graduation at the Laconia Boys and Girls Club. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
Coach Bob Rondstat, Coach Carolyn Hemingway, Coach Kamal Gosine and Coach Kent Hemingway with the Laconia Boys and Girls Club tennis players at their graduation celebration Thursday afternoon. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)