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Tennis program turns court into canvas for art

ALBANY — An organization founded to bring tennis to inner-city youth 30 years ago, which grew to include literacy, healthy living, college prep and STEM education components, is going artistic this summer, partly in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, 15-LOVE, a nonprofit that serves about 5,000 youth and their families annually with its free programs in Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Troy, launched its latest effort, called 10 BLOCKS. By the end of a day of about 20 participants drawing with colored chalk on a tennis court in the Westland Hills city park off Colvin Avenue, a 2,808-square-foot "art court" had been created that reflects on the themes of equity, equality and multiculturalism.

The 10 BLOCKS name comes from the 10 rectangles that make up a tennis court, including the four service courts adjacent to either side of the net, the long, narrow strips at the outside that are used in doubles play and the largest boxes, occupying rear center of each side, called No Man's Land.

"Art is one of those amazing ways to connect with other people," said Anjalee Modasra, a 17-year-old from Schenectady. Involved with 15-LOVE for seven years, Modasra was at Westland Hills on Wednesday with three siblings, also current or former 15-LOVE participants, and their parents. To fill their assigned spot, an 18-by-27-foot No Man's Land, the family devised a drawing inspired by a popular social-media meme illustrating the difference between equality and equity.

In the original, three people watching a baseball game from behind a fence each stands on a box of the same size, with an adult enjoying unobstructed sightlines, a youth still able to view the game and a child who can see only the fence. That panel is labeled "equality," because each has an identical box. In the "equity" panel, the tall adult is still able to see the game without a perch, the youth has the same box and view as in the original, and the child, given the boost of two boxes, can watch, too. The Modasras' version for 10 BLOCKS nods to the meme but, instead of boxes, uses the four types of tennis balls available for players of different ages and skills, designated by various colors. Those meant for younger players have varying levels of lower pressurization, and the ball for the littlest kids is also larger in size.

"I've done a lot of work to combat racism, sexism and gender inequality in my community, and I'm excited to be able to continue that" with 10 BLOCKS, said Modasra.

The new art program was conceived by 15-LOVE alum Ryan Artis. A 36-old-old Albany native, Artis was involved as a participant from age 12 to 18 and worked as a tennis coach for 15-LOVE during his undergraduate years at Union College in Schenectady. Now a Loudonville resident and lawyer specializing in intellectual-property cases, Artis has been a 15-LOVE board member for a decade.

"Everything so different this year because of the pandemic," Artis said, including limits on class size and players per court, temperature checks, etc.

Artis said, "I thought of (10 BLOCKS) as a way to squeeze in one last thing before the end of the summer that would be fun for the kids and their families, bring people together but still have the safety of social distancing."

As a result of the restrictions, this year LOVE-15's summer program, which in 2019 served 2,800, could accommodate only a quarter as many, and it wasn't able to offer classes for parents, as it did in the past, according to Amber Marino. Now the executive director, Marino started with 15-LOVE as summer job during college in 1996. The organization's annual budget is about $440,000, she said.

Each of the 10 participating individuals or families, chosen by 15-LOVE leaders from among initial applications, will provide a written statement of two or three paragraphs to discuss their block, Artis said. A professional photographer documented the panels and, using a drone, captured an overall view from above. The goal is to have photos on 15-LOVE's social-media pages within a day or two and, later this month, a more elaborate, interactive presence on its website that will connect participants' written text with a close-up of their respective blocks, Artis said.

The budget for 10 BLOCKS, about $1,000, was covered by members of 15-LOVE's alumni committee, Artis said, adding that he hopes 10 BLOCKS will become an annual event.

Malachi McQueen, 11, of Albany, is a sports enthusiast who expanded his skill set to include tennis when he started with 15-LOVE two years ago. He illustrated his block with a quote from a Black activist Marcus Garvey, though also in contention were Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Arthur Ashe, who was supportive of the 1990 launch of 15-LOVE. Rondacia McPerson, 15, of Schenectady, adapted the rainbow flag representing LGBTQ pride with different colors to illustrate racial equality and added the words, "We are one."

"My design is showing religious equality with lots of different religious symbols," said Mohamed Shahabuddeen, also 15 and of Schenectady, who is part of 15-LOVE with his 13-year-old brother, Saeed.  The Shahabuddeen panel incorporates a Christian cross, Judaism's star of David, the crescent moon and star representing the Islamic faith and six others, he said.

"They learn so much more than tennis," said Mohamed's mother, Elizabeth Shahabuddeen. She said, "We're very happy to have them involved." Though she doesn't play tennis, she said she's become a fan, watching her children play, enjoying televised professional matches as a family and visiting the National Tennis Center in Queens, where the US Open tennis tournament is held.

The Shahabuddeen boys have a friendly rivalry on the court, according to Mohamed.

"I'm better, obviously," Mohamed said, adding of Saeed, "He has more power, but I have more control." As for the tennis talents of their sister, 10-year-old old Eliza, Mohamed said, "She's getting there."

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