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Patrick Carr, Section 1 SP 15, Spring 2015

At-risk San Diego teens find tennis haven at Barnes Center

MULTIMEDIA: Ivan Thamma, an at-risk teen, finds inner growth and tennis success through Youth Tennis San Diego.

16-year-old Ivan Thamma arrives in the afternoon to a place at the end of Interstate 8 in San Diego with palm trees, a playground and 25 tennis courts. If he didn’t start playing tennis at the age of six through a nonprofit neighborhood tennis program, there would be pressure in his neighborhood to be in a gang.

Thamma has grown up in City Heights, a heavy gang area in San Diego. He still lives there, but for the past three years, he’s been going to school in Point Loma.


Ivan Thamma laces up his shoes before an afternoon tennis practice

The five-foot-ten-inch Thamma laces up his Nike shoes and plays tennis three hours a day, five days a week at the George E. Barnes Tennis Center in a high-intensity training program geared toward high school kids looking to make the jump to the college ranks.

Unlike most tennis clubs, kids are always the priority at the Barnes Center. And still unlike most tennis clubs, a lot of kids call it a second home. These kids are in Youth Tennis San Diego, a nonprofit organization that provides between 10,000-12,000 kids each year the opportunity to play tennis after school.

The program’s home base is the Barnes Tennis Center and the program operates through 73 sites across San Diego County. Most of them are schools, while others are parks. They all give kids a place to go after school.

“It’s just a great place because it’s mainly made for kids,” Thamma said. “If there was no Barnes Center, no YTSD, I probably wouldn’t be playing tennis.


Ninety-three percent of the kids in YTSD are also in their respective schools’ free-lunch program, according to Executive Director Kerry Blum. YTSD’s after-school programs consist of five 6-week sessions throughout the year with the cost being $30 per session.

If a child qualifies for the free-lunch program, then the cost is $6 per session, making YTSD incredibly inexpensive compared to other tennis programs (La Jolla Tennis Club’s advanced training program costs $240 per month). According to YTSD, over 60% of the kids need financial assistance.

“Many of the kids that we see normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to play tennis,” Blum said. “Most of our schools are in the inner city, for them to finish school, gangs are a huge part, so this an opportunity for them to get out of the gang environment.”

Five times a year, kids in YTSD’s After-School program come to Barnes in what is the first exposure to a real tennis court for most of the kids. Most of the 73 After-School sites across San Diego County aren’t actual tennis courts.

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YTSD’s After-School Tennis program operates across San Diego County through nearly 100 sites.

The paid coaches, teachers or volunteers who oversee each after-school site usually have little prop nets and some form of chalk to draw makeshift tennis court lines on blacktop.

Youth outreach programs like YTSD are known to be very successful in keeping kids off the streets. Dustin Robinson oversees the Linda Vista Teen Center, part of the Boys and Girls Club of San Diego. He says these kinds of programs can change kids’ lives.

“They get exposure to a lot of things, they get offered opportunities, there’s just so much here that we offer that I’ve seen kids grow,” Robinson said. “It’s like their second home.”


YTSD itself is 61 years old, but the Barnes Tennis Center is 26 years old. Back in the mid 1980s, the City of San Diego was struggling to keep up with the costs of maintaining its tennis courts throughout the city.

In order to stop financial bleeding, the city sold public courts to private clubs.

Pretty soon, Blum said, YTSD was finding fewer and fewer public courts to use for the kids to play on. That’s when YTSD decided it needed its own facility.

One night out at dinner, a group of people including Blum pitched the idea to George Barnes, the former president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association. What he did next stunned Blum.

“We told him our pitch and our vision and he wrote ‘I pledge $1 million’ on a napkin,” Blum said.

$3.5 million later, the Barnes Tennis Center was built, and with it, a safe haven for many at-risk youth across San Diego County, like Thamma.

Thamma still lives in City Heights, but goes to Point Loma High School which is just down the road from Barnes. YTSD suggested he get an interdistrict transfer so he could go to school in that area. Thamma enrolled at nearby Correia Middle School for his 8th-grade year after previously going to Rosa Parks Elementary in City Heights. YTSD helped push the inter-district transfer along.

Through extensive training and tournament play, Thamma is ranked No. 1 in doubles and No. 9 in singles in the USTA Southern California rankings in the Boys 16s Division. That’s not the most important part of Thamma’s ascent through YTSD, though.

“He has such a high ranking he can go to any college he wants, which, going to college is one of the main goals of this program,” Blum said.


Thamma hits a backhand during a tennis practice at the Barnes Center in March

Education is a big part of the program. Kids have to maintain a B average in school in order to stay in YTSD. The western-most building of the Barnes Center is the Booth Education Center, where kids can do homework in a quiet environment that includes a library.

Inside the Barnes Tennis Center is a wall with bulletin boards that list YTSD alumni and where those kids have gone to college.

“We have several kids that have come from the inner city that are going off to college and this is something that was never in their cards,” Blum said.

As for Thamma, he’s already thinking about what he wants to do after high school. He’d like to go to a Pac-12 school like Stanford or Cal and study physical therapy or kinesiology.



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