In 2004, Dion Lachmanen took his nephew to Highland Park, which straddles the border between Brooklyn and Queens, for a day of fun and, as an avid tennis fan, he wanted to check out the courts at the park.
What he found was 13 courts in disarray. With some missing nets and trash scattered across the whole strip of concrete, it was a disappointing sight.
“When I got there, there were only four nets up. The rest had no nets and people were doing whatever they wanted on the courts,” said Lachmanen. “People were barbequing; there were broken bottles and drug paraphernalia. My nephew and I were trying to play on one of the decent courts, and there were guys racing motorized cars and they kept coming onto our court.
It was just a wasteland.”
Lachmanen decided then and there that he needed to do something about the courts at the park. He went home and began trying to reach out to the USTA and the Parks Department in order to express an interest in helping to rebuild the courts.
“I kept going back myself to help clean it up and set up nets. Because I lived in the neighborhood and wanted a place to play, and wanted other people to be able to play in a safe environment,” he says. “The kids at the park were looking at me like I was crazy as I was setting up nets by myself. But a few months later, people were starting to listen, and we were able to gather around 20 people who shared the same vision as I did.”
Lachmanen and his group met and discussed ways to start and grow a program, and the idea to start a kids program was eventually hatched. Along with his team, Lachmanen ventured out into the community for some true grassroots marketing, promoting their Tennis Open House event with thousands of flyers and word-of-mouth.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, or how many kids and parents would show up,” he said. “We went out to every store, library, YMCA, etc. throughout the community to spread the word. We ended up having 154 people come out to take part in tennis lessons, games, raffles, etc. We had some volunteers coach the kids through drills. Those coaches followed along and saw that something special was starting, and many of them are still our coaches today.”
With the successful open house, the Highland Park Tennis Association (HPTA) was born. The first year of the program had 24 kids, and that number keeps increasing each year. This last year alone, the HPTA had more than 180 kids in the program, a remarkable jump from when it first started.
“Our overall goal is to create and foster a safe, friendly environment in Highland Park where tennis can be enjoyed and flourish for generations to come,” the HPTA mission statement on its website reads. “Our mission is to utilize tennis as a vehicle to promote and instill the importance of education, social responsibility, healthy lifestyle, proper nutrition, fair competition, respect, high self-esteem and strong character to the participants of our Junior Tennis Program, while providing an alternative source of recreational outlet. With our strategic programming and dedication, we hope to prepare the participants of our program to face and conquer the challenges they may face in life.”
With that mission and vision in mind, Lachmanen has created a culture at Highland Park which has benefitted hundreds of local kids, and will continue to do so in the years to come. A few years ago, a partnership between the USTA and American Express called the Fresh Courts initiative where they were looking to build courts in underserved neighborhoods. Lachmanen reached out, and the initiative helped to reconfigure the 13 full-size courts they had, creating 10 full-size courts which have the 60’ lines for 10&Under tennis, plus three 36-foot courts for 8&Under tennis.
It is remarkable to see the growth of the HPTA in the decade-plus of its existence. What started as a hobby for Lachmanen to bolster the courts in his community has turned into a thriving non-profit organization that provides an invaluable service.
“It never felt like work,” Lachmanen says, looking back at all the time and effort he has put in. “Of course there were times I felt like walking away, but I just couldn’t. It meant too much to me. And I had help from gracious volunteers who shared the same outlook.
I had one goal in mind when we first started, and that was to come here one day and see the courts full. I said if that happens, we’ve accomplished something. The courts are now full all weekend long.”
For more information on the Highland Park Tennis Association, visit www.HPTANY.org
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org