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Reading & Racquets benefit young children

Lisa Bourg, Pro Tennis Registry instructor, foreground, serves to children in the summer program of Reading & Racquets. Left to right are Jaliya Thomas, Kaila Valdes, Keyonna Ogonji and Diamond Polite. Reading & Racquets is a newly funded program for children grades one through three, combining academic tutoring and tennis.

Lisa Bourg, Pro Tennis Registry instructor, foreground, serves to children in the summer program of Reading & Racquets. Left to right are Jaliya Thomas, Kaila Valdes, Keyonna Ogonji and Diamond Polite. Reading & Racquets is a newly funded program for children grades one through three, combining academic tutoring and tennis.

ALBANY, Ga. - We all remember the three "R's" of learning -- that's Reading Writing and . . . Racquets?

A newly funded learning program for kids, jointly executed by First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Family Literacy Connection, the Albany Tennis Association and the Dougherty County School System has put them all together to benefit children grades one through three.

During the summer, 38 Albany children are spending mornings and afternoons learning and being tutored. Twice a week they play tennis, their favorite activity.

Reading & Racquets is the brain child of Monty Cox, who in 2009 became concerned about the low CRCT scores of some children in the Dougherty County schools, especially in reading. Cox, a church renewal associate with the Atlanta-based CF Foundation working with First Presbyterian Church in Albany, thought of combining reading improvement efforts with his love for the sport of tennis.

"Rather than just complain about it, I wanted to help do something," Cox said. "I'd played tennis since I was nine and really loved the sport. I thought it could work to put them both together."

Cox ran up against a monetary brick wall at first. No grants seemed available for the program he had in mind. He ran across Family Literacy Connection in Albany and through it met Sandy Bamford, executive director of the organization. The two became friends and Bamford found a suitable grant from the Georgia Department of Human Services.

However, funding was available only once every three years and the cycle had just completed. They would have to wait. Meanwhile, Cox and Bamford formed a coalition which included their organizations, Albany Tennis Association and Dougherty County schools.

In April the grant came through, providing $50,000 each year for three years. The federal funding, administered through the state, requires matching of an equal amount. Reading and Racquets has managed the requirement by claiming the allowable 25 percent of Cox's salary from the CG Foundation plus $15 an hour for volunteer time.

The reading and academic side of the program is most important, Cox and Bamford agree. Tennis provides an essential "hook" to attract children to the program, but it's even more than that. According to Cox, fast-paced workouts can improve production and release of brain-boosting proteins and possibly increase learning power.

"We wanted it to be a balanced program because children today spend their time cooped up with TV or some sort of game set," Bamford said. "The physical activity increases blood flow to their brains."

Cox says that tennis also builds integrity and self-discipline, both important aspects for character and learning.

"Most of the kids in the our program never played tennis and would probably never have had the opportunity to play. This is something they'll have now for the rest of their lives."

The success of the academic program relies on the 50 or so reading volunteers, with about half that number tutoring on any given Tuesday. Tutoring and learning take place five days a week during the summer at Family Literacy Connection, 406 W. Highland Ave. Bamford said one of the requirements of the program is that a parent of each enrolled child attend a parent meeting once a week at First Presbyterian Church.

"If you can help parents to understand what their children need and how to help their own children, you really have a step up in helping the children," Bamford said.

The children play tennis on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the public courts at Tift Park, with the help of instructor Donna Friedlander and others in the Albany Tennis Association. "10 and under" tennis incorporates a smaller court, smaller racquets and low-compression balls.

According to Cox and Bamford, Reading & Racquets is about to enter its final summer week. In late August the program will start back up as an after-school program, two afternoons each week.

For additional information about Reading & Racquets or to volunteer as a tutor call Cox at (229) 349-0311.