At 2am four years ago, I responded to a general post seeking volunteer tennis coaches. I was about to finish graduate school and had coached sporadically for seven years, so I thought this could be a fun, interim experience. For the next two hours, I emailed back and forth with Vi, the person who posted the ad. She had just started a new NGO that delivered tennis programming to kids who live on the Southside of Chicago. I naturally was curious about this person who was up so late at night and about this new organization that I had just committed to. But, I thought I’d take a chance.
I spent that summer coaching at a junior tennis camp and looked forward to the energy and eagerness from the young campers. Flash forward a few of years and a few more tennis camps, Vi ended up gifting me a couple of tickets to watch the Powershares Series tournament, starring John McEnroe. It wasn’t until then that I finally thought to Google Vi. As it turns out, she was a partner at one of the leading human rights firms in Chicago. Up until then, to me, she was just the person who was emailing back at 2am, 3am, and 4am in the morning. Our relationship obviously didn’t end there.
Another thing I didn’t know was how passionate Vi really was about tennis and how active she also is in the tennis community. One auspicious day, I was talking with her about how the public school district that I worked for was in dire need of after school programs, particularly for elementary-aged children. Some days later, a friend of Vi’s from the United States Tennis Association (USTA), urged me to start a community tennis association and in turn, they would help me acquire federal tax exemption. Now, The ACE Project is a registered 501(c)3 that delivers year-round tennis programming, with a strong emphasis on social emotional skill-building and a positive youth development framework.
I think you could call this story one about mentoring, networking, privilege, luck—it certainly is all of the above. However, examining a piece of this story through a lens of autonomy and personal drive, these opportunities would never have been realized if I didn’t “step out” and “step up.” I “stepped out” when I blindly responded to a call for coaches. I “stepped up” when the opportunity arose to start a new venture. In essence, you never know what interaction, relationship, email, or phone call will yield new opportunities. What I do know is, you have to “step out” and “step up” to take advantage of new possibilities.
Susan Klumpner is the executive director and co-founder of The ACE Project, a nonprofit organization that provides after school programs that strengthen social emotional skills and athletic abilities. She formally served as a school social worker and is presently a licensed clinical social worker that has experience working with children and families impacted by trauma and violence. Susan is also pursuing her PhD in social work at The University of Maryland, Baltimore. For more information on The ACE Project and her work in nonprofits, please visit: www.activechildrenexcel.org