PITTSBURGH - What can smacking a little yellow ball around do to change a life?
A whole lot according to the coaches at the Inner City Junior Tennis program in Pittsburgh.
The ICJTP has been molding champions since Willa Bentley started the nonprofit in 1974.
As Pittsburgh's first competitive African-American tennis player, she wanted to make the game accessible to inner city youth who otherwise would have no way of paying for equipment, lessons or court time.
The program is free and open to anyone, blending together people from different neighborhoods and economic backgrounds.
They are teaching kids the skills they need to win on the court, but they also focus on teaching them the skills they need to succeed in life.
Central Catholic student Jorge Reyes-Arbujas started there at 6 years old and now aspires to major in engineering at an Ivy League school.
“I’ve just gotten a lot of moral support from my coaches,” he said. “They've pushed me to do better and I love that about this.”
“It's been a true blessing. In my family we have three generations of tennis players,” said Martha Hall.
Hall is a coach now, but she started as a student.
“It just opens a lot of doors to the students and a lot of students are driven for more and greater things when they get exposed to the coaches, because the coaches are college grads and in the workforce as well,” she explained. “They are able to talk to the kids about the importance of being dedicated and committed to what they are doing.”
The program also has sponsored kids at tennis camps, helped them get into local and national tournaments.
Participants who stay with the tennis program into their teen years even get help with SAT prep.
Many have gone on to some impressive schools, MIT, Harvard and West Point among them.
The ICJTP hopes to expand into a multi-day per week tennis program like similar programs in Philadelphia and Chicago.