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Sports Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 28, 2005

Teaching city kids to love sport and life

By Tim Matteson

GUILDERLAND — It’s a hot, steamy Tuesday afternoon in the middle of summer, but the kids still come.

It is one of many stops Guilderland resident Amber Ablan makes during the week.

Tuesday afternoon’s trek is to the city park in Arbor Hill, Tuesday evening she will be in Schenectady’s Central Park.

Such is the busy life of the executive director of the 15-Love program, named after tennis scores.

The program, established in 1990 to teach tennis and life lessons to kids in inner-cities, was supported by the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe.

A few similar programs were created at the time but only this one survives — bringing a once exclusive, country-club sport to city players.

"It is similiar to ones that were started in Newark, New Jersey and in Kansas City," Ablan said. "This is the only one that still exists. I really believe that’s because we have such a strong board that is dedicated and we get community support."

Herb Schultz is the president of the board.

"He really is the backbone," Ablan said. "He is phenomenal. He brought in Arthur’s vision and standards. He’s always been wonderful."

The 15-Love organization runs programs throughout the year, with summer programs having the most participants. During the summer programs are held at Lincoln Park, Arbor Hill, and Ridgefield parks in Albany; on Michigan Avenue, Riverfront Park, Jerry Burrell Park, and Central Park in Schenectady; at Russell Sage College, Prospect Park, and Frear Park in Troy; and at Riverside Park in Rensselaer.

Ablan is from Carthage, near Watertown. She moved to the area to attend The College of Saint Rose where she played tennis. A member of the men’s team at the school worked for 15-Love.

"He asked me to come and work and I did," Ablan said.

After graduating from St. Rose, Ablan worked as a teacher for a couple of years before heading to Villanova University to get her master’s degree.

"Wonderful environment"

She then came back to the Capital Region and went to work for 15-Love.

"I felt like I could do more as executive director than I did as a middle-school teacher at an inner-city all-boys school," Ablan said. "I felt the program was stronger...

"The people are great and it’s a wonderful environment," she added. "I could help people do great things. How could I say no""

That was four years ago, and Ablan noticed a lot of differences from when she first started with the program.

"The people are inherently the same, as are the lessons," she said. "But since I came back it’s expanded."

The program has different levels — from beginners to advanced and team tennis players and adults. The lessons are free of charge and are open to anyone.

The 15-Love program is funded through grants, donations — individual and corporate — and a large fund-raiser.

"Our finances struggle like a lot of non-profit organizations," Ablan said. "The board members help us in any way. They are intimately involved."

College prep

Added to 15-Love in recent years is a book club that is totally run by volunteers in Arbor Hill.

The program can also help high-school juniors and seniors prepare for college.

An Excellence Program fields a competitive team.

"We’re looking for them to get scholarships and be able to play tennis in college," Ablan said. "We do a lot of college prep."

Ablan said that, out of 20 students who have gone through the Excellence Program, all but two have gone on to play college tennis.

But 15-Love’s goal is to reach as many young people as it can, no matter their level of competence on the court.

"We try to teach tennis, not as an individual sport, but with a group mentality," Ablan said. "Some are interested in it as an individual sport. But we want to give it team spirit. We want to make it as fun as we can. We want kids to come out and learn skills, basic strokes."

Numbers up

Ablan has seen the number of participants grow. She estimated that 2,100 people take part in the program, up from 1,300 when she first started.

"The numbers are a good sign," Ablan said, "but the mission is the same. It’s been wonderful and I don’t know why or how they’ve grown, but it’s great to see."

Ablan said that 15-Love sends fliers all of the public schools in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady and gets advertising space donated by the Times Union on its website. But she said that word of mouth is probably the best way 15-Love has been promoted over the years.

"People find out about us and come," Ablan said. "The next time they bring a friend back with them. It’s a positive experience and they want to share it with other people."

The program is backed by the United States Tennis Association and is promoted on that organization’s website.

Outstanding service

The USTA awarded Ablan in January with its Eastern section’s Community Service Award for 2004.

The award honors "outstanding service by a person or organization actively involved in promoting tennis through community centers, schools, parks, community tennis associations and inner-city programs.

The award was given at USTA’s Eastern Annual Awards Luncheon on Jan. 22 in Rye Brook.

"Amber has nurtured 15-Love for many years and the results of her hard work are evident," said USTA regional director David Gregoire in a release from the event. "She has reached into our communities and touched the lives of so many inner-city kids, not only with tennis, but also with mentoring and reading programs. Her guidance and ever present encouraging words are invaluable."

Ablan says it is the volunteers and teachers who make the program a success.

Summer is the busiest time of the year for 15-Love but there are programs all year.

"We’ll go to 18 or 19 different winter sites," Ablan said. "We’ll have a portable net and set up on the gym floor."

The instructors are paid.

"Everyone is paid, not much," Ablan said. "They’re wonderful. They could go elsewhere."

As the executive director, Ablan has her hand in everything, from teaching classes to meeting with board members.

"Half the day I’m with five-year-olds the other half I could be in a suit at a board meeting," she said. "I enjoy the flexibility."

Life lessons

Another aspect of the job Ablan enjoys is the friendships she’s made.

"I was teaching at Lincoln Park," she said, "and one of the adults who had been out of town for a long time came and said, ‘Do you remember me" I haven’t been here in a while.’

"Older kids out grow the program," Ablan added, "and younger kids come in. A lot of families stick with it."

Tennis has been viewed as a country-club or suburban sport and might not be appealing to inner-city kids.

"It really kind of still is," Ablan said. "But I think some
American players have changed it a bit."

Ablan used the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, James Blake, and Andy Roddick as examples of big-time players who have made the sport popular with younger players.

"The kids recognize them," Ablan said. "But it is something we still struggle with here. The best part is that we teach something new to people and teach about different cultures and where people come from.

"We can have kids from a poor family and from a rich family," Ablan said, "and they can chat about how their lives are different and how they are similiar. They can share their life experiences."

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