January 22, 2009
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It was the hottest day we’d had yet, temperatures surely breaking 95, and humid, and the whole group was lounging in the shade, wilted from the morning of tennis and plodding through the daily hour of reading. Sitting “criss-cross applesauce” next to me, six-year-old Mylea was moving her lips in time with mine. I felt my breath catch in my throat. I wanted to stop everything and watch her delicate finger tracing the lines of the page, listen to her raspy little voice pronouncing the words of Nellie Lou’s Hairdo until Nellie Lou’s mother would return to the beauty parlor. I glanced up, eager to share the moment, and caught the eye of one of my volunteers. Looking down at Mylea again, I noticed Sadie, Eric and Victoria, each hunched over a picture book for the first time.

In dreaming up RALLY: Racquet and Literacy League for Youth, I had hoped to share two of my passions, tennis and reading, with inner-city children. Throughout the year, I had advertised for participants at local elementary schools and recruited volunteers at local high schools. With the help of the United States Tennis Association, I had met with lawyers to file for non-profit status, applied for several grants and raised money for RALLY. I was even able to secure a site for the program with the support of the Hartford Parks and Recreation Department.

But on the first day of camp, despite my careful planning, things did not go the way I had hoped they would. Hector and Adrian had tumbled over the net with their racquets brandished like swords, and Hector had staggered to his feet moments later, covering a bloody nose with one hand. Georgie and Eduardo had hurled balls at each other and Melanie had sat down, sobbing for her mom. During reading time, I had raced from sullen child to demanding child, unable to convince even one to open a book. They would rather be watching Nickelodeon at home, Eli told me, than “learning stupid tennis and reading boring books.”

I dragged myself home that first afternoon, tears stinging my eyes, certain that I had failed. But as the initial devastation wore off, I slowly came to the realization that I had better get to work. That evening, I called my volunteers together for a meeting, and with their help, re-designed the entire curriculum. We created a buddy system, where each volunteer paired with a camper to help him or her during reading time. To emphasize praise and progress, we established weekly prize ceremonies, doling out awards for most improved reading, tennis and behavior.

Mylea snapped the book shut and asked me, “Can I take this home? I want to read it to my mom tonight.” Peering up at her eager face, I couldn’t help myself. I jumped to my feet and wrapped her in a hug, lifting her right off the ground. “It’s all yours,” I said. As I watched Mylea scamper off to the playground and turned to begin my daily loop for cleanup, I felt a ridiculous smile spreading across my face. Somehow, in the midst of the chaos and the schedule changes and the meetings, these children, who had sulked during reading time, untouched books in their laps, had begun to find joy in reading a story.

I’ve heard the expression, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” but I witnessed its truth firsthand at RALLY. Disadvantaged children like Mylea do not necessarily lack the desire to learn; often they simply lack the resources to nurture that desire. Solving this issue is an enormous task, but, as I saw at RALLY, there is a lot of transformative power in a little bit of energy and support. I realize that RALLY’s progress didn’t follow the straight road I had anticipated. However, I discovered that with creativity, flexibility and hard work, I can overcome the twists and turns in the road to reach my destination, and help others reach theirs, too. I can’t wait to continue the journey.

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