An offshoot of a Vermont-based nonprofit is helping young athletes in Cuba with some critical improvements to the places they play. And we're not talking about baseball.
Kids on the Ball is helping to repair some of Cuba's badly damaged tennis courts — fixes that cost more than half a million dollars. The group eventually wants to foster some lasting ties between Cuban tennis players and their U.S. counterparts.
Jake Agna is the founder of Kids on the Ball, and this week he's traveling down to Cuba for the ribbon-cutting for newly resurfaced courts there. He spoke with VPR before his trip.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.
VPR: What prompted you to first visit Cuba? What did you discover in connection with kids playing tennis and the conditions of the courts?
Agna: "In America, I had gotten a lot of acclaim for grassroots tennis, because that's what we've been doing ... since 2000. But my daughter nudged me and said, ‘These guys? This is grassroots tennis.’ And so I got up there, humbled right off the bat, and said, ‘You know, I don't know why I'm down here in a lot of ways, I wanted to see what you guys got.’
"So they took me out to the National Tennis Center pretty quickly, and it was just humbling. The courts were really beat up. I've never seen balls that beat up ... the nets were strung up to chairs and I felt a lump in my throat.
"I looked at these kids [and] the first thing you notice is the attitude — tremendous attitude and talent. I mean, the kids are physically fit, but more than anything, just the energy and the enthusiasm was like, I was surprised."
How did you get the idea to raise money to repair these courts, and how did you make that happen?
"I told the Cubans that I'm going to go back to some of the foundations that I talk to and see if they are willing to get behind this. My plan was to help them right off the bat with balls, string, rackets, shoes, a stringing machine, and then the first phase basically was to fix the courts, which was going to be a lot of money.
"Second phase was to fix this building that's there, it's the National Tennis Center — it's really beat up. And then the third phase was to get kids to play each other — American kids to go down there and Cuban kids come up [here].
"And so I came back and I went to a couple of the major donors I have. I went to Bob Stiller, who at that time had Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and he gave a tremendous donation to get it off the ground. And then I just was enthused, I felt like it could happen. That's how I fundraise. I just get in a mood and I just started calling people up and we got a lot of money pretty quickly."
When you started traveling to Cuba, President Obama was in office and was working to reestablish diplomatic ties to Cuba. Now it's unclear where U.S.-Cuban relations are headed in the Trump Administration. Has the new political climate affected what you're doing in Cuba?
"Not really, but for sure the Cubans are asking questions. The normal Joe on the street, the cab driver, says, ‘What do you think's going to happen?’ And you know, I don't know.
"It was amazing, we started right at the right time. Cuba was opening up, I started to take people down on trips because partly I wanted to fundraise that way, but mostly I wanted people to see what I saw and come back with stories. I thought that would be the way to spread the word about how great a people they are.
What are your hopes for getting some of these Cuban players to Vermont at some point, and again, do you think that might be affected by what happens with the Trump Administration?
"I do think that the embargo has to be lifted for these kids to be able to come out of there and play. Over the past two years, we've taken some teenage kids down there. That's what I want to see is, I want to see our kids play with their kids, because everybody comes back saying, ‘Man, that was fun.'"