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October 16, 2019

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Marty Hennessy Inspiring Children Foundation:

Program steps up when tennis players reach life’s break point

Homeless Tennis

Steve Marcus

Will Elmore, 23, poses by Court 6 at Lorenzi Park Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. Elmore sometimes slept in the court when he was a homeless teen.

Marty Hennessy Inspiring Children Foundation

Rua Elmore, 16, stands by his brother Will Elmore, 23, during an interview at the No Quit Tennis Academy at Lorenzi Park Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. Launch slideshow »

Will Elmore is walking through the tennis complex at Lorenzi Park when he notices three empty water bottles sitting on a bench. He goes out of his way to pick up the bottles and throw them away.

Elmore has good reason to keep the complex tidy.

The 10-court facility on Washington Avenue near Rancho Drive is more than where he developed into a tennis player who would go on to set records at Villanova University. It’s where he secretly lived outside for a few months one summer as a teenager and where he later poured in hours of time paving the way for other players facing challenges to get back in control of their life.

Elmore is the development manager for the Marty Hennessy Inspiring Children Foundation, which takes children whose challenges seem too much to overcome and allows them to thrive in a mentorship tennis program. The program, whose backers include the singer Jewel and former boxing champion Mike Tyson, is more than multiple practices each day and a list of athletic accomplishments.

Those, you can argue, are secondary, founder Ryan Wolfington said. The foundation develops its charges socially and academically, focusing on everything from SAT preparation to nutrition and self-confidence.

It has sent all 115 players who reach the foundation’s internship program in its 15 years of existence onto college, and 95 percent of those have received significant scholarship money. The United States Tennis Association hopes to duplicate the program in other metro areas, Wolfington said.

“I have 300 kids. These are my children,” said Wolfington, who has no biological children.

Click to enlarge photo

Ryan Worthington, founder and president of the board of the Marty Hennessy Inspiring Children Foundation, poses outside the foundation's headquarters in Lorenzi Park Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.

There’s a player who relocated to Las Vegas on the program’s support after his family lost its house in Hurricane Irma. He’s one of about four players who lives in a nearby home Wolfington’s family bought during the recession for the foundation to house the players who have nowhere else to go.

Another player came from Nashville on Jewel’s recommendation because the boy’s parents had gone into rehab to battle substance abuse. Another player was a national champion from the East Coast who had become disenchanted with the sport and overwhelmed with mental problems.

“Every kid here has a very unique story,” said Trent Alenik, who went through the program and has returned to serve as its executive director.

Then there’s Elmore.

His family moved as many as 40 times during his childhood until finding its way to Las Vegas to stay in an extra bedroom with extended family, he said.

But the adults all living under one roof couldn’t get along, and Elmore’s immediately family had to split to find housing. Elmore’s parents assumed he was staying with friends.

They would put $25 weekly on a prepaid debit card for him to eat. He would go McDonald’s or Wendy’s after night practice to dine off the dollar menu. When everyone would go home for the night, he would pile blankets in the corner of court No. 6 and go to bed. He slept there so those driving by couldn’t see him. He would wake-up at the crack of dawn each morning because of the sunlight.

He easily could have asked a friend to crash at their place, but he was embarrassed to ask for help. It was before the foundation had the housing option.

“If I could take it all back, I’d ask for help,” Elmore said. “It wasn’t being brave. It was pride, because I didn’t want to be a burden.”

How it works

There are about 300 participants of all ages in the foundation, most of whom are part of the No Quit Tennis Academy for their training. Many of children are from challenging backgrounds, meaning racquets, gear, training, travel and mentoring are provided. The foundation won’t turn anyone away.

“Come as you are. But you have to earn your own way,” Elmore said.

The academy is run by Tim Blenkiron, a former UNLV national champion who is widely considered one of the nation’s top trainers. His lessons can cost thousands of dollars each year. But for Wolfington and the foundation, everything is donated. Blenkiron is also on the foundation’s board.

Once the players reach high-school age, they earn a spot on the leadership leg of the foundation, which includes about 100 players. They practice twice daily for six days a week, including four hours in the morning. They spend the rest of the day in the mentorship program, which is housed in a 30 foot-by-20-foot trailer at the park. Las Vegas provides the space to the foundation.

They attend the hybrid Odyssey Charter Schools, which requires students to attend class twice weekly and gives players the freedom to travel to tournaments and to work in the internship program. Many have close to a 4.0 grade point average, which is one of Wolfington’s goals — so much he has tutors from all sectors on-call.

Click to enlarge photo

Will Elmore, 23, and his brother Rua, 16, have lunch in the Marty Hennessy Inspiring Children Foundation headquarters at Lorenzi Park Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.

Computer terminals line the wall of the trailer and are constantly occupied, either for school projects or work the kids do helping run the foundation. Players mostly congregate around a long rectangular table, eating healthy meals such as fruit and turkey wraps, and more important, talking about life’s struggles and their strategies to overcome them together. It’s there they feel comfortable to openly discuss challenges.

The program works. Teens are advancing to play at Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Yale, or other notable academic institutions such as the Air Force Academy and Villanova. One player was part of two national championship teams at Stanford.

Only two players have been asked to leave, and each wound up in trouble with the law, Wolfington said. All but one played college tennis, because he went onto to a high-level job in film in New York. He learned the skills in the foundation’s video program.

Hands-on training

A whiteboard tucked in the back of the trailer lists plans for a trip to Colorado for an upcoming tournament. There’s hotel room assignments, details of van travel and other particulars for a successful journey. There’s also plenty of motivational phrases.

Those plans weren’t pieced together by Wolfington or other adult leaders. Rather, it’s all done by about 30 kids in the internship program, which is the top level of the foundation’s development chain.

Same is true for operating their website, workshop planning, sweeping the courts, cleaning bathrooms and organizing for their annual fundraising gala. Jewel and Jason Mraz have headlined the event in years past; in the program’s infancy Tony Bennett was involved.

They take a leadership tour each summer to the East Coast, doing a little bit of everything — tennis, meetings with business and political leaders, and sightseeing. In the past, they’ve had leadership talks from the likes of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

When the players return each summer from college, many spend time helping with the foundation. They practice, mentor and share stories of how being part of the group has helped in college. It is one, gigantic network and family.

Many of them take a gap year between high school and college to develop, and stay with the foundation for an internship. Elmore’s internship group combined to raise $280,000, he said.

“Every one of them is the CEO (of the foundation),” Wolfington said.

‘Don’t look like me’

Elmore’s mother is a New Zealander; his father is part African-American. That background isn’t like most in tennis, he quickly realized.

“A lot of people who play the sport don’t look like me,” he said. “But with the foundation that doesn’t matter. There is no sense of entitlement. It’s what is earned, not what is given.”

Once he got firmly into the program as a teenager, he thrived. He improved on his near 2.0 grade-point average and eventually earned high marks on the SAT to qualify to be admitted to Villanova. There he graduated with a dual major, including a degree from the university’s top-rated business school. He graduated May 18, which was also his 23rd birthday.

He was one of the tennis program’s all-time winningest doubles players, competing in No. 1 doubles this past season and winning 17 matches.

More important, he set a standard for others in the foundation, including his 15-year-old brother, Rua. Rua is also primed to compete in college.

“I admire the person he is,” Rua said of his brother. “He was able to accomplish in spite of his circumstance and that’s inspiring.”

Will Elmore didn’t initially want to talk about those nights sleeping on the court because there’s more to his story than being homeless. But by sharing his message, he’s able to tell others in the group to not be afraid to ask for help. After all, there were plenty of supporters who would have stepped up — something he sees daily.

“No kid should ever feel that they are a burden,” he said.