It’s a sunny day in the middle of summer, and a few dozen young people charge across the tennis court at Cadwalader Park in Trenton. Dripping with sweat, they race to the finish line, turn around and pause, waiting for their coach to signal the start of their sprint back.
After a few relays, they head to the fence that’s lined with water bottles and take a quick break before starting more drills. The youngsters are all participants in National Junior Tennis & Learning of Trenton, Inc. (NJTLT), a program that began in 1975 and now reaches about 2,500 local children each year.
While NJTLT has produced tennis standouts, it’s the organization’s focus on schoolwork and life skills that make this program popular in the city. Princeton University students mentor players; the organization has partnered with Bloomberg LP’s Startup program to provide career-readiness programming to the youngsters; and over the last four years, graduates of its elite Arthur Ashe Student Athlete program have been awarded more than $400,000 in college scholarships.
NJTLT has been the recipient of Community Foundation grants for three years in a row.
Alfred Kandakai, 16, of Trenton is among the teens playing tennis. His father taught him how to play at a refugee camp in Ghana, where they fled because of civil war in their native Liberia. When he moved to his mom’s Trenton home four years ago, his stepfather suggested he join the league.
“I think it’s good because it gives lots of kids the opportunity to do better,” he said. “It takes kids off the streets and makes them focus on something to do.”
Alfred said he learned leadership skills at NJTLT and noted players must maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Yet, it was NJTLT’s executive director who explained that Alfred is ranked as the #1 singles player at his school and has won a number of tournaments.
“All these children are modest,” said Deborah Frazier. “He’s one of our stars.”
Alfred said the program gives teens a chance to make new friends. Through the program, participants also receive equipment, including rackets, bags and sneakers.
“They do everything for you,” he said. “Whatever you need, they try to help you. You just have to be respectful, stay humble and try your best. They’ll provide everything for you. You just have to show up.”
Janessa Curden, 13, of Trenton, a student at Villa Victoria Academy has been playing tennis for three years. Through NJTLT, children make new friends and have something to do over the summer, she said. Janessa also got the chance to attend a college prep program.
“The people here are nice,” she said. “They’re caring. They help build you up as a person. They build your self-confidence. They’re here for you and to help you succeed in whatever you want to succeed in.”
Grace Aaronson, 18, and her dad were driving through their hometown of Trenton when they spotted a NJTLT banner almost a decade ago. She joined the program and eventually became a state doubles champion during her junior year at the Lawrenceville School.
“It gave me all of my tennis skills,” she said of NJTLT. “But I learned a lot more than tennis here. I learned about teamwork. I learned social skills. I was pretty shy as a kid – I made a lot of friends here.”
Grace said she is grateful for the support she received from the tennis staff. As a high school student, she also coached the younger children.
“The coaches here are so welcoming,” she said. “It’s like a big family. I grew up with that support. I took that to my own coaching, to give back to the community.”
She began studying at Yale last year and planned to continue playing recreationally in New England.
“Tennis is truly a lifetime sport,” she said. “The coaches here make sure that the kids learn not only how to have fun, but how to play and how to love this lifetime sport. You can play in high school and college, and it all starts here on the courts of NJTLT.”