At public housing sites across Brooklyn, kids who normally would be enjoying the spring weather at the playground or on the basketball court are now cooped up indoors.

The after-school activities they took part in before the onset of the pandemic are now on  hiatus. Also, many are left home alone as their parents go to work at essential jobs. To make matters worse, Brooklyn’s public housing residents have been hit hardest by the virus, and the city has been slow to respond to their needs.

To help with the stress, isolation, lack of exercise and boredom that kids are facing, the Kings County Tennis League is providing free virtual classes to over 100 children living in public housing across the borough.

Instructors from the nonprofit gather with students via Zoom for nine one-hour classes each week, where they practice some basic tennis skills, discuss their favorite tennis stars, participate in group workouts and talk about how they’re coping with quarantine.

Over 100 children have regularly taken part in KCTL’s virtual lessons since they started in late April, according to Executive Director David Webley. Screenshot via Zoom

KCTL normally hosts in-person tennis lessons for kids at six public housing sites in Brooklyn. Executive Director David Webley said he and other organizers decided to create the virtual program after checking in with the families KCTL normally serves.

“A lot of them reported back that their kids weren’t getting enough exercise, they were getting pretty bored obviously at home, not enough stimulation,” he said.

Now the students are visiting with beloved instructors over Zoom, getting pointers on their hand grips, foot work and strokes, and doing jumping jacks, toe touches and stretches in their apartments to stay in shape and discharge pent-up energy.

A New York City living room in a housing development isn’t the ideal place to practice tennis, but Webley says his students are making the most of the space they have.

“In small areas you can actually master some of the grips and practice ball control as well,” Webley said. “They’re getting their heart rates up during the curriculum, which I think the families are really appreciating.”

Stacey Portis has been a KCTL volunteer since 2013. He was supposed to lead the site near Bed-Stuy’s Brevoort Houses this year. Instead he’s been assisting with every remote lesson — nine per week — since the virtual program began April 21.

“Initially I was a little nervous about it, because, how do you capture the attention of young folks who were used to being out on the court, love being out on the court, and now everything is via video?” Portis said. “But overall I think it’s gone very well.”

A long-time tennis fan, Portis says he wishes that he had a program like KCTL when he was growing up with a single mom outside of Chicago.

“[Children] need things to be structured. You need to provide guidance. And the more you do that, the better off the child is. And they have resources they can draw on and examples that they can see,” he said. “It provides that structure, provides guidance, and it gives them something to look forward to each Saturday.”

Kids balance tennis balls on their rackets during a virtual lesson with KCTL. Screenshot via Zoom

Many of the students are able to access the sessions thanks to the tablets the Department of Education recently distributed to facilitate remote learning. KCTL plans to provide all of its students with noise cancelling headphones as well, and to distribute internet hotspots to those who need them.

The nonprofit has also donated groceries and exercise equipment to participating families since the pandemic began.

During recent sessions, the students practiced moving balloons around in controlled circles on their rackets, analyzed matches together on YouTube and talked about how they’re feeling.

“I feel proud,” Darnell Yates, one of the young participants, told his instructor. “I feel happy that I’m learning new stuff in tennis.”


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Alex Williamson

Alex Williamson is a Brooklyn-based reporter whose work has appeared in Brooklyn Eagle, Queens Eagle, Gothamist and elsewhere.

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