A sport played by people in white clothes on manicured lawns or courts of brushed clay? Sometimes, yes. But tennis can also be a means to help at risk kids prepare for lives of meaning and accomplishment.

To a group of Ridgefielders who are deeply involved in running the Danbury Grassroots Academy, 2019 will be remembered as the year their efforts on behalf of kids who are little less affluent and upscale than the tennis club crowd were recognized as the United States Tennis Association’s National Junior Tennis and Learning program of the year.

The Grassroots people don’t just take the kids out on the court to hit balls and learn tennis tactics. They work closely with families and schools on the kids’ academics and character growth.

“We have close relationships with teachers and schools. We go to parent-teacher conferences. We have access to the online student portals,” said Lauren Bailey, who was a state tennis champion playing as Lauren Dalton for Ridgefield High School back in 1997.

“We’re there as a liaison between the parents and the teachers,” said Ridgefielder Lynn Radford. “A lot of times English is not their first language.

“I go to those conferences like I’d go to conferences for my own kids,” Radford said. “I know what the kids are doing for homework, I know if they’re having issues or problems with specific subject areas, and I can relate that to the teachers.”

Ridgefielders Lynn Radford and Joe Higgins run the program with Lauren Bailey and her husband Carl Bailey, who live in Danbury. The Danbury Grassroots Board of Directors is also thick with Ridgefielders, including: Mike Smith, Walter Beaty, Bob Lapple, Dr. David Pazer, Cathy Perry, Charlie Valenzuela, Becky Strominger and Georgia Carrington.

The program serves about 60 kids from Danbury, ages seven-and-a-half to 18.

“They have to be on free and reduced lunch programs in school, because the whole program is free,” Lauren Bailey said.

Danbury Grassroots Academy — loosely affiliated with Grassroots tennis programs in Norwalk, Bridgeport, Stamford and New Haven — also offers to the kids’ parents English classes twice a week, and monthly nutrition workshops.

To better the life

“We have an intimate personal relationship with each student, their teachers and their family,” said Carl Bailey. “It’s not a numbers game, but an attempt to better the life of each individual student in our program.”

“To help them achieve any and all of their goals, to become their very best,” Lauren Bailey said.

The parents contribute some work, and there’s also a public service requirement for the kids.

“Everybody in the program — the student and one parent — has to participate in Clean City Danbury Day, which is picking up garbage,” Lauren Bailey said.

“It’s a year-round program and the kids stay with us all year,” she said. “It’s an after-school program from September to June.”

The program operates weekdays from 2:15 to 6 after school, and summers Monday through Thursday from 9 to 2:30, throughout July and August.

“In summer we transition to the summer academics and enrichment and tennis program,” Lauren Bailey said.

During the school year the kids walk or take the bus to the Grassroots office on Danbury’s Main Street.

There they do “all of their homework, including extra reading, mandatory extra math, and in addition to that we do enrichment workshops,” Lauren Bailey said.

The enrichment workshops cover a wide range of topics — computer coding, programming, robotics, yoga, dance, writing, arts and creativity.

Volunteers

“In the afternoon we have volunteers who are in the office every day with us, helping with homework projects, papers,” Lauren Bailey said. “Everybody who comes out — the enrichment workshops — they’re all volunteers and they’re all extraordinary humans.”

“We also take field trips during the year to different places,” Lauren Bailey said.

“We decided eight years ago that education was our priority, while keeping tennis as an important part of the program,” said Carl Bailey.

There are partner organizations — such as Ms. President USA, the YEA! (Youth Entrepreneurial Association) program, the Finding Our Way science and math program out of Western Connecticut State University.

“They exposed them to meteorology and animals,” Lynn Radford said of Finding Our Way, “and it culminated with a trip to Wallops Island off the Virginia coast where NASA has a hub.”

“We also have kids that go to New Pond Farm (in Redding) for a one week sleep-away camp.”

College ahead

“We have many of our students participate in the DECO Program,” Lauren Bailey said, referring to Danbury Early College Opportunity, a cooperative effort by Danbury High School and Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC).

“If kids are motivated, they can graduate in four years not only with a high school degree but with an associate’s degree from NVCC — for free!” Lynn Radford said. “They can transfer their credits and get a full four-year degree from a four-year college — in two years.”

“We also do a lot of college campus visits, SAT prep, mock interviews, college fairs, college essay and application support,” Lauren Bailey said.

There’s an impressive list of some 20 colleges that Grassroots kids have been accepted at — including UConn and WestConn, Boston College, University of Vermont, Vassar, Syracuse, Marist, Colby, Quinnipiac.

“We have a 100% high school graduation rate and they may have gone on to college, but some have gone on to work and have careers,” Lauren Bailey said.

“The end result is success for the student,” she added, “whether that be a four-year degree or a career and a trade.”

The tennis aspects of the program take place at Danbury’s Rogers Park in the summer and at Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, with its indoor courts, during the winter.

Summer work

The summer program, too, is about more than tennis.

“All students spend two and a half hours doing mandatory summer work given by the schools, extra reading in the Danbury Library Summer Reading Program, extra math using Khan Academy, and multiple workshops.

“And then they spend two and a half hours playing tennis and exercising down at Rogers Park.

“In addition we take four field trips through the summer, and each and every student is required to complete a one-mile or 5K race that they train for with us throughout the summer.”

In recognition of the program’s USTA award, one of the Danbury Grassroots students — Sammy Justo — stood at center court before a U.S. Open match this fall, with tennis great Roger Federer and actor Alec Baldwin, participating in the coin flip ceremony for Federer’s match.

“Sammy had Alec Baldwin’s arm around him at the U.S. Open — it’s almost surreal,” Carl Bailey said.

Values

As with many programs to benefit kids, it’s about values. A poster on the wall at the Grassroots office proclaims the kid of things the program seeks to get across to students — beyond how to hit a backhand, when to lob, and when to charge the net. The poster reads: “Do you best — always. Keep your hands to yourself. Be honest and truthful. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Share and take turns. Focus on your own work. Respect Others. Come ready to learn. Believe in yourself. Try new things. Be a friend. Follow directions. Never give up, And have fun.”

With a budget of about $300,000 a year, Danbury Grassroots Academy is free to the kids. But part of the deal is an expectation the parents will contribute an hour of work to the program a week.

The relationship with kids and their families extends beyond the typical — Lauren and Carl Bailey usually have a bunch of the kids over to their house for a sleep-over during the summer.

“They’re in with both feet to help the kids progress through school,” Joe Higgins said of his colleagues. “They know every homework assignment. One of the biggest things they do is make sure the kids get everything done.

“They’re thoroughly involved — whatever it takes. The kids are in plays, we go to all the plays — anything the kids are in.”

The Grassroots staff attends “moving up” ceremonies from fifth to sixth grade and eighth to ninth grade, and the high school graduations.

“Any problems at home, they’re there. They come in,” Higgins said. “They helped repair a house! They go the extra mile…

“When the need arises they drive kids around — the parents can’t make it. They get involved,” he said. “ …Above and beyond, they’re there for the families.”