By Gianna Insogna

It is now the end of September, which means I have 3 months of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA under my belt. As I reflect back on these rewarding and eye-opening past 3 months, I decided to share my experiences volunteering for the Sloane Stephens Foundation through AmeriCorps and ITA’s Tennis for America program with everyone.

First, let me break down what all of these titles are and what they mean.

Tennis for America? VISTA? Sloane Stephens Foundation? You might be wondering what all of these are. An AmeriCorps VISTA is a Volunteer in Service for America. VISTA’s help build the capacity of their designated organizations, so that these organizations can go on to aid people living in poverty. That being said, AmeriCorps VISTA and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) worked in conjunction to form Tennis for America – a year of service program designed to allow former college tennis players to fight poverty with tennis throughout America. 

This year, various VISTA fellows have been placed throughout the country in order to utilize their athletic and academic backgrounds to make big impacts in their respective communities. I personally have had the honor of being placed in Compton, California, as I volunteer my time to building the capacity of the Sloane Stephens Foundation – a non-profit organization created by professional tennis player, Sloane Stephens, dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of students and their families through education, tennis, and community-outreach. 

During my first two months of service, I was primarily focused on helping the Sloane Stephens Foundation coordinate a summer camp for our students. This summer camp was virtual in order to maintain social distancing and keep our students safe. It was held via Zoom, 4 days a week for approximately 8 weeks. Our camp consisted of both academic and athletic curriculum — including segments such as writing workshops where students submitted assignments for the Arthur Ashe essay competition, daily workouts to encourage students to maintain good physical health, meditation to foster mindfulness and good mental health practices, online games to incorporate play time and bonding between students and coaches, and a leadership/nutrition program where students learned how to build various leadership characteristics and healthy eating habits. 

With the end of summer and our virtual camp came a drastic yet exciting change in my work duties as a VISTA. While still honoring my responsibility to use tennis and education to help our students, my role for the Sloane Stephens Foundation took on many new forms. First of all, I became involved in utilizing SSF’s partnership with Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) to increase our students’ accessibility to tennis tournaments. Through this partnership, SSF students who would otherwise be unable to afford to compete in tournaments every weekend could now play as many tournaments as they would like with their free UTR membership. The goal is to ultimately set them up for success as a collegiate athlete in order to further their education, as this opportunity allows them to increase their rating, making them appealing as a recruit to coaches for college tennis. Part of my role in this partnership also included organizing match play events for our students. I have been hosting these events for our students approximately every other week, and it has been a great experience getting to see them play and coach them through matches. 

Aside from tennis, I have also had the privilege to create my own leadership and health program for SSF that I teach once a week to the students in our foundation. In this program, students learn invaluable and effective leadership skills to carry with them on the court, in the classroom, in the workforce, and for the rest of their lives. The goal of the program is to instill essential qualities of a good leader in students at a young age, so that they are ready and well-equipped for college athletics, college internships, college life in general, and the workforce. In fostering these young students to be strong future leaders, they learn and practice concepts including, but not limited to, communication, accountability, team work, compassion, courage, integrity, humility, and resilience. On the health side of the program, students are taught important mental and physical health practices through nutrition, meditation, mindfulness, exercise, and more. 

Lastly, I have been helping Sloane’s vision of a readily available college prep resource come to life. This resource is aimed at families with kids who will be first generation college students. It is intended to help both parents and students who are unfamiliar with the college application process to be able to easily navigate the ins and outs of preparing to be a successful collegiate athlete and student. Although it is still in its early stages, I am excited about the ideas we have come up with to make this project come to life. 

In conclusion, September has been a busy and rewarding month dedicating my time as a VISTA to the Sloane Stephens Foundation. While my responsibilities take many forms, all of my efforts are aimed at making any and all resources available to students in order to help them make strides in their education and tennis. Through education and tennis, huge impacts are being made on these students. I cannot wait to see what the rest of my year of service has in store!

The ITA’s national service program Tennis For America invests in college tennis graduates in order to fight inequality through tennis. Learn how you can support Tennis For America.

Read more about the work being done at the Sloane Stephens Foundation!

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