NORWALK, Conn. -- The focus of Norwalk Grassroots Tennis is about much more than serves, slams and overheads for underprivileged players. Cathy Osterhout sees to that.
The Westport woman, who formerly lived in Weston, also teaches life skills to the students. About 10 students meet with Osterhout and her associate, Vickie Green, once a week for an hour. The subject area is broad, including nutrition, health, conflict resolution and even how to introduce yourself.
“It covers a whole range of things,’’ Osterhout said. “A lot of times it’s more than life skills.”
There are three levels in Osterhout’s classes: Game, Set and Match. It takes three years for students to get through all three levels. She also tests them after each unit. The classes run for most of the school year.
“It’s kind of challenging for the students,’’ Osterhout said. “We meet from 4:30 to 5:30. They finish school and then they come see me, and it’s like going to school again, so we try to incorporate some exercise into our classes.”
Osterhout started with Norwalk Grassroots in 2001. She initially worked with children on their tennis games before being asked to teach the life skills component.
“When we first started, it was a lot to handle,’’ Osterhout said. “We did it two times a week. We tried different ways to make it work, and over the years I’ve sort of figured out what works and what doesn’t.”
Norwalk Grassroots Tennis is a nonprofit community organization dedicated to improving the lives of youths from broad socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds with programs based on the ideals of tennis legend Arthur Ashe. It is part of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, which has 620 chapters with 350,000 participants. NJTL was initially founded in 1969 by Ashe, Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder as the National Junior Tennis League.
Most of the children in the program live in or around the Norwalk Housing Authority, are often from single parent households and witness environments that include drugs and violence.
Osterhout said one of the keys to reaching the kids is interaction. “They like doing things that get them involved,’’ she said. “But we still have workbooks where we try to finish two or three pages each time. It’s concentrated on learning and doing the life skills.”
Osterhout said she enjoys the interaction with the students. Norwalk Grassroots Tennis is primarily all-volunteer, and she said she prefers teaching life skills over other positions, such as fundraising. She also enjoys seeing the results of her teaching.
“We go over things again and again and again,’’ Osterhout said. “Sometimes I don’t know whether they get it, sometimes you can tell right away if you’re reaching them, and sometimes it can take a lot longer. When it’s over, a lot of them come up and give me a hug. I know they’re moving forward with things. Some are difficult and challenging. I try to make it as fun as it possibly can be.”