He decided to make the place his own personal tennis court. He put up a net with duct tape and cleaned up the court. He chased the fellows who were racing those mobile gas cars on the courts away and he started to play. He returned weekly and it seemed as if it was the same ritual, always defending the courts. He duct-taped other nets and a sparse one or two people started to play alongside him.
That is probably when Dion Lachmanen got the epiphany. He contacted the United States Tennis Association and learned that they give people a chance to try the sport. He sent the USTA an e-mail and told them what he was experiencing at the Highland Park Tennis Courts in Brooklyn. To his surprise, he got a response back from them and he was, it seemed, standing in his own acres of diamonds. The USTA offered nets and balls, the very basic tools that the HP Courts needed. Partnership for Parks explained to him that although the HP Tennis Courts were in Brooklyn, they were administered by the Queens Parks Department.
It seems that Brooklyn gave up on the park in the 1970s. No one wanted to use the park; it was a way station for bodies and a haven for drugs. Although, Mr. Lachmanen just wanted a nice place to play tennis, Helen from Partnership for Parks suggested that the park would benefit from a kids program in tennis.
Suddenly, a kids program grew and from May 2004 to October 2004 Mr. Lachmanen was savvy enough to recognize that he wanted to make sure the program had control of its destiny. He insisted that he wanted his own nets to put up himself; therefore no one could come and remove the nets or dictate how the program was to be run. During this time Mr. Lachmanen acquired thirteen nets, which he put up on all thirteen courts.
Park Day came in Spring of 2004 and before that day came Mr. Lachmenen started a petition to ascertain who was interested in playing tennis because he wanted to get a sense of what the community wanted. He was pleasantly surprised when thirty people showed up for his first meeting.
Then in 2005 when he organized the Opening Day of the Kids Tennis Program one hundred fifty people showed up. Even the USTA came to show their support. There was face-painting, games for kids and of course tennis. It was a success and the kids tennis program at Highland Park was now underway.
The season ends in August and Mr. Lachmanen has arranged for the kids who participated in the program to attend Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the U.S. Open as a special treat for them. Since Mr. Lachmanen recognized that HP Tennis Courts are located in a low to moderate-income level neighborhood, he is reluctant to ask parents to contribute financially. He has rented a bus to take the kids to the Arthur Ashe Kids Day program and in the very beginning he obtained donations from the local businesses surrounding the park. He has also been successful applying for and receiving grants. In some cases even the coaches have reached into their own pockets to ensure the kids are not deprived of a full tennis experience.
All of the coaches volunteer their time and some were even using the court to practice their craft when they first met Mr. Lachmanen. There are seven coaches: Lou Reid, Al Foster, David Pressley, Hector Henry, Adjua Mantebea, Esan Benn and Zack Carlisle are the coaches who donate their time. They all make it abundantly clear that they do this for the kids.
David Pressley, a retired New York City Corrections Officer, who has played competively, and was out recovering from a hip replacement returned to his coaching position. He spoke enthusiastically of the satisfaction he receives when he looks in the face of a joyous kid who gets it right. He said he volunteers as a way of giving back. He currently works with meaningulworld.com, which is a humanitarian organization. He fills his plate with activities and causes that will make the world a better place. He spoke compassionately of the mother who suffers from cancer who brings her daughter every Saturday morning to learn to play tennis.
Hector Henry offered the frustration it takes to maintain a tennis program for the kids in this neighborhood. The families financial resources are limited and although some support has been shown by the USTA, he says it is not to the magnitude he has seen in more affluent neighborhoods where parents can pay for group and private lessons, pay for the cost of use of different and varied courts; where the courts are always fresh and cleaned by the Parks Department; where the coaches do not have to worry about where they are going to store their equipment from one week to the next; and where the instructional classes are offered daily, not just once a week as they are at Highland Park.
Adjua Mantebea became a volunteer coach seven years ago after she taught one of her nephews. She has competed competively and has enhanced her coaching by becoming a certified coach. She and the other coaches make clear that their program is not a baby sitting service; parents are required to stay the full time with their child and are encouraged to take the court themselves on occasion. The program imparts a holistic approach as the kids get physical fitness, with specific exercises that improves their abilities on the tennis court. A young 7-year old named Malikah is considered wise on the court. Marlene Lee and Anays McKenzie also participate in the program. Each of the parents, Tana Lee and Richard McKenzie, respectively recognize the importance of having their kids involved in an activity that allows them to exercise, socialize and learn.
One coach says the park belongs to the community and anyone else who wants to take part in the richness that is being developed in Highland Park. At their annual awards ceremony, Mr. Lachmanen and the parents are always looking for more and different ways to raise money for the program. They all say they would really welcome more of a commitment, involvement and partnership from the New York Junior Tennis Association, the U.S. Tennis Association and the Parks Department. Despite the frustrations, Mr. Lachmanen has turned these once blighted tennis courts into acres of diamonds and you don’t have to be born with the gift of sight to see how it has transformed a neighborhood.
There is an assumption that a blighted area will always remain so. But, it took one person to do outreach and to find the resources to attract others. Dion Lachmanen has shown what can come about when one person asks some fundamental questions. This same thing can be done in other areas with other interests. All it takes is resourcefulness and outreach to turn a community and offer more options. The tennis coaches at Highland Park have shown us how. So, if you want to develop poetry, chess, track, martial arts, wrestling, boxing, concerts, theatre and so many others, you will see success and notoriety; and what you will learn is that, if you build it, they will come.
René Myatt is a practicing attorney in
New York. Her website is myattlegal.com
And her e-mail in firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is © 2011 René Myatt and
Represented with the permission of the
Acres of Diamonds