‘They can make a difference’: Tennis teaches west Louisville youth lessons beyond the court

California Park’s nearly eight-acre greenery is bustling with activity.

On a typical night, you could see a couple of guys playing basketball, running up and down the courts. A little further down, you might find a group of youth practicing football or several kids playing on the playground.

But on the far left side of the park, you see something that might seem out of the ordinary. Twice a week, a group of fifth- to eighth-graders come together to not only play tennis but learn how they can make a long-lasting and positive impact on their community.

Coach Sonya Harward, who moved back to Louisville last year, said she wanted to start a tennis team on the West End to give back to underprivileged youth.

“Hearing about the crime rate, I knew I wanted to pick a rougher neighborhood and help the community,” she said.

And Harward has done just that.

Star Hitters, the seven-player team formed is June, is dedicated to bettering themselves and the community on and off the court, Harward said. One of the first community service projects the team undertook was painting new trash cans at California Park, 1600 St. Catherine St.

Janaya Pitts, 13, said a lot of trash was littered around the park when they first started playing. The hope was painting the trash cans might make them more noticeable to people so they’d be more likely to use them.

“We wanted to just make it a better community,” Pitts said.

Demontay Woods, 11, painted his trash can red and green. He tried to add a fireball to it but said it didn’t turn out too well.

“I learned how to paint, I’m not good at that though, but I learned about caring for others,” Woods said.

The newer trash cans were provided with the help of Ben Johnson, assistant director of recreation for Metro Parks. Others could learn from the example set by the Star Hitters, he said.

“What I say pretty consistently is some of us older folks can learn from these young folks,” Johnson said.

The community service aspect of Star Hitters is what makes the team stand out from other youth tennis teams in the area, said Dee Maynard, a member of the Louisville 10 & Under Tennis Association.

For her, there are two benefits in encouraging younger kids to pick up the game.

First, tennis is a sport based on negotiation and respect, which they can apply in their day to day lives, she said. Second, anything that gets young kids for active is a bonus.

Kids in the California neighborhood and other lower income neighborhoods in the area tend to experience higher rates of obesity because they have less access to outlets for exercise, Maynard said. 

“If we look at it from a healthy activity standpoint and how to deal with people standpoint, we’re hitting two big things right there,” Maynard said.

When there is a lull during practices, Harward advocates character advancement. A recent lesson focused on defining what it means to be benevolent and the importance of giving a gift without the expectation of receiving one in return.

Harward gave the Star Hitters two weeks to think of something kind they can do for someone else.

Pitts, one of the young players, said it’s easier for her to give than receive. “I could teach people I know how to play tennis.”

While the tennis season will wrap up in mid-November, the Star Hitters are looking toward registering with a middle school tennis league in Louisville so they can compete in tournaments, Harward said.

But even after the season ends, Harward hopes the team stays together and continues community building.

“I just want my kids to realize they can make a difference,” she said.

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