Since its October grand opening ceremony, the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Center in Zephyrhills has garnered widespread recognition for its breadth of racquet sports and other amenities.
The 10-acre athletic complex, located off Simons Road, is owned by the City of Zephyrhills, but privately managed and operated. It boasts 11 tennis courts, eight pickleball courts and four padel courts. It also offers a mix of peak performance treatments in the way of a state-of-the-art fitness center, cryotherapy, salt room therapy and sports counseling.
These features, among others, set the facility up as a regional, national and even international racquet sports destination, with potential to host world-class tournaments and professional players on-site for training.
But, beyond the scope of drawing tourism and big-money events to East Pasco, the sports facility also is serving up outreach opportunities for community youth.
That’s being done through the facility’s 501c3 nonprofit partner organization, called the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Foundation.
The foundation’s mission is “to provide tennis and education programming in Pasco County communities through character-building, physical activity, and mentoring.”
The foundation — and tennis center— is named in honor of the former Zephyrhills High School district champion who became a scholarship player on the University of South Carolina Upstate women’s tennis team.
Sarah Vande Berg, the daughter of Zephyrhills planning director Todd Vande Berg, died in an automobile accident at the age of 21 in October 2015.
Sarah Vande Berg Foundation program director Nick Walton and Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center CEO Pascal Collard provided updates about the nonprofit’s progress during a Zephyrhills City Council meeting last month.
Earlier this fall, the foundation launched a pair of free afterschool programs at both West Zephyrhills Elementary and Raymond B. Stewart Middle Schools. Programming had been set to begin at the schools in the spring, but was delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the new afterschool program, foundation coaches and volunteers are on-site at the schools twice a week for two hours each day, teaching introductory tennis fundamentals, nutrition habits and character education classes, for children in grades three through eight.
The program assists youth of all skill levels and backgrounds, including many low-income and minority youth who have limited access to organized sports.
Most of the approximately 30 youth players from each respective school had never picked up a racquet prior to joining the program.
In a nutshell, here’s how the afterschool initiative works: All participants are incentivized from the first day to show up to all classes, listen to their coaches, follow instructions, and try their best to improve. Students who handle these objectives diligently for four consecutive weeks are rewarded with a brand-new racquet for them to take home and practice.
“We want to break down barriers to the sport of tennis and access to equitable education services,” Walton said of the program. “Our vision is for all students to have personal growth and positive relationships through tennis.”
The foundation also has sponsored a teen ambassador program geared toward eighth grade and high school students. These ambassadors help volunteer in the afterschool programs and represent the foundation at other community events. For their efforts, ambassadors receive training and private coaching privileges at the new tennis center.
“We’re definitely more than tennis,” said Walton. “What we’re creating is a community of young people who will grow together, on and off the court.”
That happens, he said, through positive role models and mentors, a heavy emphasis on education and growth through sport and physical well-being.
The foundation also offers a college scholarship program, awarding multiple scholarships each year to graduating Zephyrhills High School student-athletes. Scholarship selection criteria include academic performance, leadership qualities, volunteerism, community engagement and sports involvement.
Athletes from all sports are encouraged to apply, not just those who play tennis.
Six scholarships have been awarded over the past three years, according to the foundation’s website. The deadline to apply is April 30 each year.
Zephyrhills City Councilman Lance Smith called the foundation’s varied efforts “a great thing for the whole community.”
“I’m just really excited because we’re in those schools where we need to reach these kids,” said Smith. “Introducing them to a sport and teaching them about what they need to do to become good people, creating good character in them, so I couldn’t be happier to be involved with them.”
The Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Foundation has methodically built up its base since design plans and construction for the multimillion dollar tennis center were en route a few years ago.
The foundation’s first major fundraiser was held in October 2018, at Arbor Green in New Tampa.
That tennis clinic and event gala was headlined by International Tennis Hall of Fame coach Nick Bolletti, renowned for grooming 10 world No. 1 players, including Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Dade City’s Jim Courier, among many others.
The gala helped raise more than $10,000, used to purchase tennis rackets and to subsidize tennis camps for youth.
Total donations have since reached $30,500, according to the foundation’s website. Supporting partners include the United States Tennis Foundation, Wilson Sporting Goods, Duke Energy and Zephyrhills Water.
The foundation mirrors a similar outreach program called Down The Line and Beyond, which Collard spearheaded while he was tennis director at The Merion Cricket Club, a private club in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
The Philadelphia-area nonprofit has grown to serve more than 1,600 underprivileged youths from ages 7 to 17, and facilitates positive character and education development through tennis lessons.
Some of those youths even went on to earn collegiate tennis scholarships as a result of their development in the program.
“None of them would’ve played tennis — none— without the foundation. We are going to do the same thing over here (in Zephyrhills),” Collard said in a prior interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
For more information, visit SVBTennisFoundation.com.
Published December 16, 2020