SOUTH BURLINGTON – When Jake Agna first stepped on the courts of the National Tennis Center in Havana he was shocked. The courts hadn’t received maintenance in years. Nets were being held up by chairs. But at the same time he was surprised by the enthusiasm and talent.
“I was dumbfounded by how bad the facilities were, and on the other hand, how good the play was,” he said. “There are so many kids out there you would never believe it.”
The local tennis pro has traveled to Cuba five more times since his original visit and has brought 75 people from the Vermont tennis community. Each trip, he also brought tennis balls, rackets, strings — and even shoes for the Cuban National Team, mending the big issue of inadequate footwear.
Agna’s inspiration for this endeavor came from watching a CBS Sunday Morning feature on prominent jazz musician Wynton Marsalis performing in Cuba. Marsalis was playing trumpet for a group of kids.
“I thought, man, that looks like an unbelievable place, the kids look great, and I want to see what it’s like to go down there,” he said.
Agna, 62, did just that, connecting with the Cuban American Friendship Society (CAFS), a Burlington-based nonprofit focused on building bridges between the U.S. and Cuba.
The South Burlington High School girls tennis coach has expanded his local “Kids on the Ball” program to the island nation and is involved in a project to rebuild the National Tennis Center. The program has the long-term goal of establishing a youth exchange program between the U.S. and Cuba.
The move comes after President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March, the first time a U.S. president has visited the nation since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy is supportive of the project and has met with and provided advice to Kids on the Ball-Cuba.
“After 50 years of a failed policy, I am glad to see we are taking steps to not only change our official relations with the Cuban people but also to engage with each other culturally. Sports in particular have the power to bring people together and promote understanding, regardless of the differences that exist between governments,” Leahy said.
“The whole goal is to connect people from the U.S. through Cuban youth and sports diplomacy,” said Jared Carter, executive director of the CAFS. “We’re trying to cultivate mutual respect and friendship.”
Agna started Kids on the Ball in 2000 when he invited 20 low-income kids to join his summer tennis team. Participating in a summer tennis program can cost around $400 per week, so Agna and his colleagues sponsored the initial participants. With Burlington’s refugee resettlement designation, the program took off and now reaches about 100 kids on a summer day in Burlington’s Roosevelt Park.
“We wanted to give these kids a chance to play, learn a sport, and give them a sense of control and fun in their new environment,” Agna said of his initial motivation for working with low-income kids in Burlington.
In 2015, he set out to reach another 100 kids, this time in Cuba.
His first trip to the island, accompanied by his wife and daughter, completely surpassed his expectations on every level.
“Within 24 hours it was really clear to me that their level of tennis is high, and that their pros are really well trained,” Agna said. “I went down there thinking I might help them with tennis, but within a few days it was clear that I could probably help them best by fixing their facilities.”
The renovation of 10 tennis courts, phase one of the project, is slated to begin between May and June and should be complete by December. Agna and his colleagues are waiting for the shipment of materials as only one U.S. company is currently licensed to ship to Cuba. Hinding Tennis, based in West Haven, Connecticut, has partnered with Kids on the Ball-Cuba and the CAFS to get the project going.
The plan, approved by the Cuban government on March 1, will be one of the first bricks and mortar projects since the Kennedy Administration severed diplomatic relations in 1961. The $600,000 expected cost for phase one has already been raised due to financial support from the Robert Stiller Family Foundation, The Argosy Foundation, the Serena Fund, and other donors.
Carter feels upgrading the facilities will have a huge impact on the Cuban people.
“The National Tennis Center is the largest public tennis facility on the island, and is used by hundreds of people of all ages,” the CAFS executive director said. “The facility will provide a platform for people-to-people contact in sports and building bridges between our two nations.”
Phase two is expected to start following the court renovations and involves $1.1 million in upgrades to the building at the National Tennis Center. Kids on the Ball-Cuba has yet to obtain funding for this step of the project.
Agna has his sights set on a youth exchange program between the U.S. and Cuba following the project’s completion.
“When the embargo opens up and we’re allowed to exchange back and forth, it’s going to be tremendous,” he said.
Agna anticipates the program, a collaboration with Havana’s Jose Marti Institute, could start as soon as next spring. The goal would be to help connect Cuban youth with educational opportunities in the U.S., as well as create cultural bonds between Americans and Cubans.
“These kids are inspiring because they are so determined, polite and likeable,” he said, referring to the Cuban players.
“This has helped me get inspired by tennis again.”