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Making a Difference: Inner City Tennis Clinics

Inner City Tennis Clinics (ICTC) offers youth in struggling Cleveland neighborhoods an eight-week summer program that builds fitness, wellness, and literacy on a foundation of tennis instruction. USTA/Midwest Tennis and Education Foundation grants have supported ICTC.

Founded in 2010 by tennis pro and coach Brian Smallwood, the curriculum of ICTC plugs gaps in local school instruction by focusing on healthy eating and creative expression. And it was the latter that caught the attention of 15-year-old Jovontae Williams.

Jovontae is an eight-year veteran of ICTC and a poetry instructor for the program at Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center. Tennis drew Jovontae in, but poetry would become his passion. The high school junior even read his own poem, “Dedication,” during the visit of an elite women’s tennis team. “It was about my journey, and how a new world opened up to me,” he says.

Jovontae says ICTC gave him this “new world” through opportunities to observe people in settings outside of his own neighborhood. For example, a field trip to watch competitive tennis in Cincinnati proved a game-changer. “I had never seen people in an actual competition, and I didn’t even know things like that existed,” he says. “It made me want more for myself. And the people I saw at the Cleveland Racquet Club, the way they carried themselves — I admired that in a professional setting.”

ICTC also provides jobs in areas of the city that don’t have enough of them. Jovontae was among 12 of 32 employees last summer who were former ICTC students.

The organization must be creative in accommodating the hundreds of youth who want to participate. In trying to move to a year-round model, ICTC faces its biggest challenges yet in sustainable funding and transportation. But ICTC remains determined to make a difference in the lives of Cleveland’s kids, as it has in Jovontae’s. Participants’ success in study skills, healthy habits, and postsecondary education reflect the program’s rising metrics.

ICTC has reinforced Jovontae’s parents’ high expectations for his schoolwork, while visitors and guest speakers also inspire him to do well. After he read one of his poems to the Cornell Club of Northeastern Ohio, many attendees approached him to compliment his presentation, inspiring Jovontae to consider that he too could one day graduate from an Ivy League school.

ICTC participants come from diverse backgrounds and often speak different languages, creating a rich multicultural experience. As Jovontae works with every age group in the camp, he communicates his enthusiasm for poetry by relating it to music the youth already listen to. “Poetry isn’t what they think it is,” he explains. “Rap music and R&B songs are poetry.”

But he understands where the other kids are coming from. “I thought poetry was things like Shakespeare,” he recalls. “But from my first poem, I saw it was a way for me to push out my emotions. My grandmother had passed away, and I read at her funeral. Words just flowed out of me.

“I’m drawn to poetry because there’s no boundaries,” he adds. “You can’t do it wrong.”

ICTC is grounded in tennis and fitness, but Jovontae says outside experiences like meeting sponsors and attending poetry slams can be just as impactful. “You make connections from this camp. I met my best friend in camp. That’s why I recommend it to friends and family members.”

And the poet is persuasive; six of his cousins, his niece and two nephews have all become ICTC participants.

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