Helping Put the Ball in Their Court--Kings County Tennis League is Rebuilding Community Life in the Brooklyn Projects
With a cast on one hand and a bucket of tennis supplies in the other, Michael McCasland is as unassuming as a founder and president of a large nonprofit could be. The first one on the scene, McCasland makes trips back and forth from his U-haul to the newly refurbished tennis courts in the Sumner Housing Project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Preparing for the highly anticipated ribbon cutting, the reconstruction of the tennis court at Sumner is one of five courts in a series of community projects put together by the Kings County Tennis League. Reconstructing the court has both practical and symbolic meaning to McCasland and the community he serves.
Started in 2010, McCasland claims the organization was designed as a way to give back to the community in a fun and meaningful way.
“I was working hard and playing hard, and I need[ed] to do something positive that’s not just going to brunch and partying on the weekends - I need[ed] to do something more fulfilling,” McCasland said.
As a forensic scientist, McCasland relates his desire to give back to underserved areas to his experiences working in the criminal justice system.
“So I was part of this system with DNA and justice, but I kind of wanted to be part of a program that is more upstream in helping people before it gets to a negative downstream place,” McCasland said.
Serving Marcy, Tompkins, Sumner, Lafayette Gardens, and Brevoort housing developments, the five courts provide kids in the area with a weekly opportunity to not just learn about tennis, but about life.
“Tennis is an amazing sport, and it’s an individual sport, so when you win in tennis, it's all yours,” McCasland explained. “And when you lose in tennis, you have to deal with that in many ways on your own, so it’s a great metaphor for life.”
While the physical sport provides the kids with a healthy and active way to spend a Saturday afternoon, the educational aspect of the organization adds something more. David Webley, a full-time coach, explained the dual mission of the organization to provide tennis and education.
“[The kids] come out for two hours on a Saturday; for half an hour they will sit down with an educational coordinator and we teach social and emotional skills through our curriculum, we teach problem solving, [and] working together - some of the key skills necessary to youth development,” Webley said. “And also to prevent summer slide, which happens to so many of these kids because they are not reading books, they are not engaging their brains.”
Brandon Otero was one of the first students to join Kings County Tennis League at the age of nine. Coming home from school, Otero came across McCasland handing out flyers in the middle of the street. Nine years later, Otero is now a volunteer for the organization and an incoming freshmen at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The King’s County Tennis League not only provided Otero with a fun outlet, but equipped him with the skills and relationships necessary to excel in an environment both on and off the court.
“I actually enjoy being a volunteer as much as I enjoy being a student,” Otero said. “As a student and as a volunteer, it's just as exciting because as you get older you want to learn how to do different things. And to me I want to learn how to express myself better, and by teaching students, you learn how to express yourself correctly - you learn how to speak upon your knowledge and see.”
In addition to the opportunity to grow physically and mentally, McCasland explained that the diverse and influential group of volunteers gives the kids exposure to people they may not meet otherwise.
“The kids, from the development, can hang out and play tennis with somebody who’s a forensic scientist, a lawyer, a money manager, a consultant,” McCasland said. “So the big benefit of the program, in my view, is that kids are hanging out with amazing role models and mentors, and they get exposed to all these different opportunities.”
In fact, the positive influences of the volunteers on the children reaches far beyond the tennis court. With volunteers holding integral positions at companies like Google and the NFL, the kids who participate in the organization’s programs have gotten the opportunity to do workplace visits to the volunteer’s companies.
While the kids are certainly benefited from this wider circle of influence and mentorship, McCasland explained that the volunteers are equally rewarded.
“Another thing I want to do with the program is I want everybody to get something out of it,” McCasland explained. “You know, everybody wants to give back, but you have to give back in a way that’s fun and everybody gets something out of it. … So with the tennis program, I thought, ‘we’re going to have happy hours after class; we’re going to have the kids visit where the volunteers work; we're going to give the volunteers T-shirts; we’re going to have socials.’ We want to include our volunteers in what we’re doing.”
The focus on volunteers that the organization demonstrates is part of the dual mission of Kings County Tennis League. McCasland elaborated by addressing the real meaning behind the new court.
“On a more symbolic level and a more meaningful level, to me, this symbolizes unity, community collaboration, and a commitment,” McCasland said. “Because this wasn’t just done by KCTL, this was done by volunteers at KCTL; it was done by staff, donors, [and] the commitment from the [housing development] resident presidents. This whole program is really an amalgamation of different stakeholders who all come from different, diverse backgrounds.”
The unity, effort, and intentions put forth by McCasland and the organization are evident in the community that they serve. Starting with just a handful of kids and used racquets, King’s County Tennis League has grown into an organization that operates in five housing developments, with a database of over 200 volunteers.
In order to better serve the community off the court, the organization recently partnered with Restoration Corporation, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit specializing in developing central Brooklyn neighborhoods through economic self-sufficiency and family stability.
McCasland claims he has already seen the impact of both organizations on family unity, with parents coming out consistently to play tennis with their children.
“Now the kids can be proud of their community and they can be proud of that court,” McCasland said. “They’re already proud of where they live, but it’s just now a symbol they can look at.”
However, Kings County Tennis League is doing more for the community than building and renovating courts.
“Our mission is to use tennis as an instrument for youth development and community building in and around public housing,” McCasland stated.
Chase Atneu, a volunteer, explained why the organization’s work in the projects is so essential.
“This is a niche that is under-served,” Atneu said. “They need more of a boost than, say, kids in higher income neighborhoods. We are giving the opportunity where, in the public, the opportunity is said not to exist - but it does exist. It just takes effort, time, [and] money, unfortunately, but it’s building blocks. We serve the kids, we do our work, we spend our time here, [and] we raise money for the organization.”
The organization has plans to expand its impact even further, professing goals of finishing courts at Lafayette Gardens, extending weekly programming, and adding extra programming year-round.
The Kings County Tennis League comes at a time in New York history when recreational services are needed. The organization’s education coordinator Gary Robinson explained that growing up in Brooklyn, he has seen recreation centers slowly become less common of a resource to the community.
With the organization’s efforts to revamp recreation in the projects, it is no surprise that District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Councilmember Robert Cornegy are in full support. Showing their advocacy, both were present for the ribbon cutting and spoke to the vitality of new recreational opportunities for kids in the community.
Still, the impact the league has already had on its members is visible in their everyday lives.
“There's so much love, I have never seen something negative come up in my whole entire time here and that is something to take into consideration,” Otero said. “It’s amazing - it’s always love [and] it’s always sportsmanship. You step onto the court and it’s a family, it’s a great vibe especially for the young ones.”