Jake Agna

words // Lin Stone

Jake Agna had been coaching tennis to relatively affluent Vermont children for years when he and a colleague began a small tennis program for about 20 kids who could not afford to be on a team. They asked adult tennis club members to be sponsors and then called every local non-profit organization to see if they had any children that might want to play; Agna had enough kids for a team of 100 within a few days. That’s when he approached the King Street Center for help.

The only qualification for a child’s participation was that he or she wanted to play tennis and came from a family of limited means. Agna discovered that many children wanted and needed to play, and like the Pied Piper, he and the children that followed him have been found on the courts, gyms, parks, and playgrounds, six days a week, year round, for the last five years. Kids on the Ball has received the Grassroots’ Tennis Program of the Year award from the US Tennis Association and serves 150-200 kids a week in both winter and summer programs.

“I grew up in a small town in Ohio and both of my parents were physicians,” Agna said. “Even as a child I felt that I had some opportunities that weren’t always fair. We had a park in the center of town with a baseball diamond and tennis courts. Every day I would wake up, go out to the park, and play any kind of ballgame: basketball, baseball, and tennis. Everybody came. That park was where I began to feel that some things could be fair and all kids­­—rich and poor—could meet in the middle and play together on even ground.

“Playing ball with all of the kids was hugely important for me. I learned social skills. I learned from kids with varied backgrounds. I learned how much comfort there is in knowing and understanding the rules of the game and being able to play within those lines. I think all kids are drawn to the consistency inherent in games. And because kids-at-risk often live with a fair amount of chaos, they need safe, stable places where things are consistent and everyone is learning from each other.”

“With ‘Kids on the Ball,’ I wanted to recreate the park where I grew up, had a lot of fun, and learned. When our team plays, we might have refugee children from Africa playing wealthy Vermont kids from Stowe. I love going. Everyone learns from each other. The Burlington Tennis Club or the Stowe kids have the opportunity to get off their cell phones and learn to be kind. The kids from challenged lives see other kids to emulate and act in more ordered ways. This can only happen with matches between very different neighborhoods.

“Here’s an example: one of my kids from a pretty beat-up environment was acting out. At first, my guy tried to cheat. The other boy from a more secure background called him to the net and said, ‘Let’s play the point again.’ My guy started to see the light and didn’t want to cheat again – he wanted to play again. He saw that it’s not a game if you don’t play by the rules – fairly and with kindness. You don’t often get eleven-year-olds delivering life lessons so patiently and respectfully.”

What’s next?

“Our money is now running out, but with help from Wind Ridge Publishing (WRP) and some friends we hope to keep things going with a matching grant challenge. From now until October 15, WRP will match any gift to Kids on the Ball, up to $25,000, to provide scholarships and court time for six more years. I have a lot of kids right now and I don’t ever want to turn any child away.”