Published Tuesday, July 1, 2014 | Written by Kerry Eggers
Executive Director Danice Brown is the glue that keeps St. Johns after-school tennis program on track
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jasmine Schrader (above) goes for the ball during a day of tennis at the after-school program hosted by the St. Johns Racquet Center.
When students in the Portland After School Tennis and Education program are asked to greet a visitor, they line up in single file and introduce themselves by name, making eye contact while offering a smile and a firm handshake.
It’s a lesson in social skills espoused by PASTE’s executive director, Danice Brown.
“It’s important to have the ability to be proud of who you are,” Brown says. “If you don’t smile when you’re introduced, you go back to the end of the line.
“Such things don’t just come naturally. They have to be taught. And especially with many low-income families — most of the kids were not brought up with social skills.”
Brown, 72, is the straw that serves the drink in the PASTE program, a nonprofit organization at St. Johns Racquet Center that helps at-risk students achieve academic and athletic success. After retirement as manager at West Hills Racquet Club, she has run what was formerly known as “PAST” since 2007.
“Danice is the perfect woman for that role,” says Matt Felton, PASTE’s major benefactor and former board chairman and owner of Felton Properties. “She is an incredible educator — she should be the next superintendent for the school system. She is great with kids, and she commands a respect from the children that is really awesome.
“At the same time, she is passionate about tennis. She ran a tennis club in her past life at West Hills, and she has a love for community service and giving back. This was the perfect blend of tennis and nonprofit. If you could create a job for Danice, this is it.”
PASTE is a year-round, tuition-free program that began in 1996 as “PAST,” with a tennis-based after-school offering twice a week throughout the Portland Public Schools system.
Since it became “PASTE” in 2009, the organization and its director have been nationally acclaimed. In 2010, PASTE was voted as national chapter of the year by the First Serve Tennis Organization. In 2013, Brown was honored as Racquet Industry magazine’s grassroots champion of the year.
Shortly after Brown came on to run the show in 2007, she addressed board members with a request.
“What are we doing?” she asked. “We’re keeping kids safe for a couple of hours a week, but we don’t really even know the kids’ names. We’re not connecting. We’re not really teaching the sport. We don’t have a court to play on. We need to find something that makes more of an impact.”
Brown secured St. Johns as a site — PASTE is on the second year of a 20-year lease with the city — added education and acquired funding that allows for a year-round extended-learning program. It serves children from 2:15 to 6 p.m. four days a week during the school year and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the summers.
More than 7,000 students have come through the program since its inception.
“The foundation of the program is academics now,” Brown says. “It’s 60 percent academics and 40 percent fitness and tennis. Fitness is huge, because these kids are not as healthy as they should be. Their diets are often poor.”
Students from kindergarten to high school can become part of PASTE if they qualify for the free or reduced lunch programs offered at the public schools. There is a lengthy waiting list.
During the nine-week summer program, which began on June 23 and is called “Serving Up Success,” students break into groups and work on reading and other educational pursuits. They come in two groups — one in the morning, one in the afternoon. All are provided with a healthy lunch as well as 45 minutes of tennis play and instruction.
“By the end of the summer, we’ll serve 250 kids,” Brown says.
From an academic standpoint, “it is designed to stop summer learning loss. Studies show that low-income families’ children suffer summer learning loss to a far greater degree than do middle-class families. They don’t get the stimulation during the summer. Kids need direction. They need to read. They need to work on their math. We make it fun to do all of that.”
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Children in the Portland After School Tennis and Education program at St. Johns Racquet Club dance to Gangnam Style as a way to warm up.
Brown is a veritable Pied Piper as she scurries about St. Johns on a typical summer day, checking on her staff (an associate director and nine coach/tutors) along with volunteers and students, doling out affection that is returned in waves.
“Danice does the most amazing things,” says Luehna Abuan, 21, a coach/tutor from Benson High who is a senior-to-be in nursing at Linfield. “She has had a full life already, then she comes out and makes this whole program. It baffles me to think she can fulfill all these things for these kids.
“It really is like a family here. They have every aspect of everything these kids need — education, organization, discipline, exercise, health. Their parents are either gone all the time, or don’t have enough time for them. It’s great they can spend their days like this.”
The kids understand how hard Brown fights for them.
“She is a really cool person,” says Riston Habtemariam, 11, who is in his sixth year in the program. “She is brave. She has a lot of courage. She is a really strong person, and she is very patient.”
There is a reading session and a tennis session following a “Peace Circle” that opens every day.
“The ‘Peace Circle’ is the foundation of everything,” Brown says. “It’s the point of contact in terms of their environment, with conflict resolution, with how the kids can remain peaceful and display the skills they need to stand up for the right thing.”
All of the coach/tutors for the year-round program are college graduates with tennis skills. The main emphasis in the after-school program during the school year is homework.
“The kids don’t have the assistance at home at night,” Brown says. “With most of the parents, their English isn’t good enough to help with the reading and homework, or they haven’t had the benefit of education.
“We do fitness, we do life skills. My theory has always been, if you can be the nicest, most well-behaved, socially acceptable child in your classroom, your teacher will love you and your grades will show it.”
Most of the students get the message.
“I was having lots of problems at school,” says Alberto Murillo, 13. “It has helped me do my homework. Plus, I get to see my friends, and I like to play tennis.”
“The tennis part has been great,” says Miguel Diaz De Leon, 14. “But the best part is being able to do your homework in a quiet spot, and having people help you. I’m grateful for Danice and all the teachers, to be here and help us and make sure we have what we need.”
Most of the kids start the program early in grade school and never leave. Brown says she has lost only one child who started the program in its six years. Parents are required to attend a monthly family meeting.
“If they have work and can’t attend, they have one week to make it up,” Brown says.
It has never been a problem.
PASTE also has operated a high school academy that has given boys and girls an opportunity to play high-level tennis.
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Snacks are consumed by children in the Portland After School Tennis and Education program before tennis lessons at St. Johns Racquet Center.
“If you’re willing to work on academics, you can get a free racquet and uniform and we’ll help you get junior tennis league matches,” Brown says. “Of the 34 of those kids who graduated from high school and were in the high school academy program, all 34 are in college. All of them come back during the summers. I love that they see us as home. I employ several of them now.”
Brown serves as mentor to many of the children. Her cell phone number is no secret.
“Danice is amazing,” says Jasmine Larson, 13. “She’s there for all of us.”
“I can’t tell you how many late-night conversations I’ve had with kids feeling they can’t make it, that they’re too lonesome to be at school,” Brown says. “In our program, they learn to be survivors, to have the essential skills required to make it in our society.”
The program is funded entirely through contributions from such organizations as the USTA Serves Foundation, the Nike Employee Foundation, the Portland Timbers, and major donors.
On the major donor list are such individuals as W. Glenn Boyd, Harry Merlo and Bill Felton, Matt’s father.
Among board members are Nike’s Mike Nakajima, Adidas’ Nathan Roach and well-known local tennis names such as Brian Joelson, Matt Semler and Jonathan Stark.
Matt Felton became involved with PAST in 2003 and stepped up his commitment when Brown came on board. He has provided funding that has allowed a small group of the program’s elite players to play tournaments and get extra practice time.
“It was a small program that was underfunded when I became involved,” says Felton, who played college tennis at Tufts and New York University. “It was fun for me to help launch it and to find somebody like Danice — who is amazing — to shepherd the program.
“When we started, we had $300 in the bank. Now we’re operating on a multi-hundred-thousand-a-year budget, with a facility and classrooms.”
Brown has a dream, though, to renovate the aging St. Johns facility that is showing rust on its beams and gutters and needs a major facelift.
“I want to get this building squared around,” she says, displaying a blueprint for a two-story, multi-use facility with a price tag that will approach $1 million. Brown has begun a fundraising campaign that she hopes will see fruition and hopes they will get a jump start from a USTA grant.
It’s a tall order, and Brown isn’t getting any younger. Don’t bet against her, though. She has been adept at taking a project and seeing it through. It’s remarkable what can get done with a smile and a firm handshake.