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Tennis Star is Born in Essex-Haiti Outreach

By Rita Christopher

Publication: Shore Publishing

Published February 20. 2012 4:00AM   Updated February 22. 2012 12:21PM
Photo courtesy of Jenifer Grant
Part of Sister Cities Essex Haiti's recent efforts centered on bringing a tennis pro to enthusiastic students in Deschapelles, Haiti.

If you are at a tennis tournament a decade from now, look out for Germinal James Adler. Or maybe you should be watching for Adler Germinal James. Jenifer Grant says that names are listed both ways in Haiti and she's not sure what the given name of the enthusiastic eight year-old tennis player actually was. Everyone, she says, called the young man Adler.

What Grant, an Essex resident and a board member of Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH), knows is that Adler was a sensation at SCEH's recently concluded tennis workshop in Haiti.

SCEH, established two years ago, seeks to establish an ongoing relationship between the village of Deschapelles in Haiti and Essex through collaboration on a series of mutually conceived projects. The largest of these undertakings is the construction of a library in the town. SCEH, in fact, has just signed a lease for the land on which the library will be built.

In addition, SCEH supports the work of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, founded more than 50 years ago by Grant's parents Larry and Gwen Mellon.

Previously, SCEH, at the invitation of musicians in Deschapelles, organized a weeklong music workshop with a number of Connecticut instrumentalists including the Community Music School's Patricia Hurley, who gave lessons and instructed a local band. Future workshops are planned on subjects like early childhood education.

An upcoming fundraiser on Friday, March 2, Have A Heart for Haiti, will feature an exhibit of photographs that illustrate both life in Deschapelles and the work SCEH is doing. The evening will include Haitian food and music provided by a Haitian blues band. The gallery will remain open all weekend so the community can view the photographs, according Denise D'Avella, the chairperson of SCEH's development committee.

The tennis project got its start because there was already a tennis court in existence at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, left over from when the building had housed a United Fruit facility. A group of eight young men who played regularly formed a tennis club, not only playing with each other, but coaching younger children as well. The club, Grant emphasizes, was not a way to shirk work, but rather something creative to do because there was so little work to be had in Deschapelles and environs.

The tennis club members had become quite proficient, Grant says, and asked SCEH if there was any way the organization could help them to receive instruction from a tennis professional. Grant recruited John DeLong, a tennis coach and family friend, to accompany her to Haiti for a two-week tennis immersion program along with SCEH board member Mary Lee Blackwell of Old Lyme and her three children, Danielle, 24; Robert, 21; and James, 16.

The group arrived in Haiti with equipment not only for skilled players, but also 40 lighter rackets and nets for Quick Start Tennis, a program for beginners to teach them the rudiments of the game.

Retired touring professional and present tennis commentator Justin Gimmelstob, a New Jersey neighbor of one of Grant's daughter, contributed T-shirts for all the participants through his own foundation, the Justin Gimmelstob Children's fund.

DeLong coached the knowledgeable players on the existing court in the morning. Every afternoon, seven quick start nets were set up on a basketball court, after the court had been swept clear of the rice that local women had spread out on it to dry in the sun.

There were more potential players than rackets, so Blackwell's two sons took the overflow out to a local athletic field to work on their soccer skills.

When instruction began, all the youngsters wanted to hit the ball as hard as they could, calling their huge swats "kabooms." By the end of the 2½ weeks of instruction, they had learned how to rally with each other, sometimes keeping the ball in play for as many as 30 hits. They also learned that rather than a kaboom, which had a good chance of sailing off the court, a return that made one's opponent miss was a better tactic.

There were skills beyond tennis that were being taught. Grant wanted all the participants to learn lessons from the life of Albert Schweitzer, for whom her parents named their hospital. She emphasized teaching respect for the earth, which meant bringing large plastic garbage bags to deposit trash rather than littering.

Grant chose Schweitzer's quote, "I chose to make my life my argument," to encourage the young tennis players to carry themselves with dignity and behave responsibly and she added another worthwhile motto to guide their behavior: Do a good deed every day.

For Blackwell and her children, who had never been to Haiti before, seeing the overwhelming poverty firsthand was an eye-opening experience.

"I'd never seen anything to compare to this; it's unnerving, yet the people have a very positive outlook," she said.

Blackwell was encouraged by the difference individual efforts to relieve that poverty could make.

"It was an amazing experience, amazing what one person can accomplish," she says.

And if you don't know what one person can accomplish, Grant adds, spend a night in a room with one mosquito.

By the end of the program in Deschapelles, the president of the Haitian Tennis Foundation had visited the town to pronounce favorably both on the enthusiasm and the newly acquired skills of the players.

In 1989, Ronald Agenor, the son of a Haitian diplomat, ranked number 22 in the world. That, however, was 23 years ago. But there is just the faintest glimmer that a Haitian player from Deschapelles, who started on a court from which drying rice had just been swept, will one day emerge on the international scene. And his name could well be Germinal James Adler, or possibly Adler Germinal James.

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Have a Heart for Haiti

Have a Heart for Haiti is on Friday, March 2 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Left Bank Gallery,

10 Main Street, Essex. Tickets will be on sale at the door, or are available by calling 860- 202- 3523 or visitng SCEH's website, www.sistercitiesessexhaiti.org

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