When my husband and I were new new new newlyweds, he took a job as the Tennis Pro at Cap Juluca Resort on the tiny Caribbean island of Anguilla. Mind you, we’d never heard of Anguilla before his company told us they were sending us there. We had to look it up on a map, and even when we did locate it on the map, we had to squint to see it. Anguilla has an area of just 35 square miles and a population of 15,000.
We arrived on this small strip of land (ages 24 and 21 at the time) in the middle of turquoise sea with nothing but duffle bags full of clothing. We moved into the house the resort provided — it had lots of space but no dishwasher, no air conditioning, and no washer/dryer — and made ourselves at home there for the next three years.
A few local teenage boys worked for His Highness at Cap Juluca’s tennis pro shop. Two of them, Shawn and Mitch, loved tennis and had lots of natural physical ability. What they hadn’t had: easy access to tennis courts, lessons from teaching pros, or many opportunities to compete. His Highness, who’d grown up with all those advantages and played college tennis, began to train them.
After a few years of hard work, their tennis improved. Thanks to the generosity of resort guests who had contacts with universities in the States, and thanks to some very inventively flattering video footage of the boys playing, Shawn and Mitch both secured tennis scholarships to small colleges in the U.S.
His Highness and I moved away from Anguilla when the boys were freshmen. But Mitch returned to Anguilla during his college summers. He was so grateful for the opportunities that tennis had given him, that he wanted to provide those same opportunities to younger Anguillan kids. He decided to organize a summer camp. He held the first camp in 1996 and named it the Anguilla Tennis Academy (ATA). It started small on courts provided by the resorts.
His Highness kept in touch with Mitch as a mentor and adviser on all things tennis. In the summer of 2001, Mitch invited us back to the island to teach the kids during their final week of summer camp. By then we’d settled in Dallas. We told him we’d love to come and brought our seven month old baby with us.
His Highness loved coaching the kids and we both loved returning to Anguilla. But we discovered that making the international trip with an itty bitty wasn’t for the faint of heart. Our infant didn’t love the 12 hours of travel to reach the island. Her sleep schedule jumped the tracks. And it was hard to entertain a baby all day without her ‘gear’. His Highness and I decided that we’d revisit Anguilla as many times as Mitch invited us, but that we’d leave our little ones at home.
Since that first trip in 2001, we’ve been back ten times! We’ve only missed when we had babies too small to leave for a week. Now our babies are so big that they’ve started giving us a hard time about our ‘parents only’ trips to the Caribbean. We’ve promised them we’ll take them next year.
It’s been astonishing to watch how the program has grown. During the early years, they expanded to offer after-school tennis all year long. They raised money and in 2008 opened a beautiful six-court public tennis facility. Many times, teenage players have come to Dallas to train at my husband’s club. Students of the academy have grown up to teach guests at the resorts as well as local kids and adults at the public courts. Two girls from the ATA are currently playing tennis for schools in the States!
And all this, because Mitch had an idea and matched his idea with dedication. It hasn’t been easy! But then, good things, things that matter, things that make a difference, rarely are. Amen? It’s been challenging to raise the money to fund the programs and make payments on the facility. But Mitch has managed to oversee the ATA and keep it going for almost twenty years now, despite that he has a full-time job and a family of his own.
The best aspect of our longtime association with Anguilla? Seeing the positive impact that tennis has had on the lives of kids. His Highness impacted Mitch. Mitch continues to impact dozens of kids, including Vallan. Vallan’s busy impacting dozens more. And so on.
Some of the ATA players have gone on to tennis scholarships or tennis professions, yes. But many, many more came out of the program better for the lessons they learned about sportsmanship, hard work, and character. Those kids have grown up to become valuable members of the community.
If you have a moment, here’s a sweet and inspirational video about one of the girls who’s currently at college because of the ATA…
[vimeo 48838929 w=500 h=281]
ATA’s facebook page.