SoCal League Tennis

NJTL’s Esparza’s “Return The Serve” Adventure

Rayleen Esparza will never forget the final days of August 2015. The thirteen-year-old who has participated in the LA84 Foundation/NJTL Program at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles for the past four years was selected to travel to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, New York. The opportunity resulted from the Southern California section winning, (for the second year in a row), the “Return The Serve” contest, organized annually by JPMorgan Chase, prior to the final Grand Slam tournament of the year.

Rayleen Esparza and Serena Williams  Photo Jennifer Pottheiser

Rayleen Esparza and Serena Williams
Photo Jennifer Pottheiser

“Los Angeles was one of ten chapters selected to be a part of the promotion,” Evan Smith, Southern California Tennis Association (SCTA) NJTL Coordinator, said. “It featured a twitter contest with the winning chapter receiving a donation from JPMorgan Chase. Even more important, the winner was able to select one of its NJTL students to fly to New York to meet Serena Williams.”

Not only did Esparza have an opportunity to spend time with Serena, (who happens to be her favorite player), she had a chance to hit with Williams and as well as her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

Rayleen Esparza's strokes were developed by Mike Casarez at Belvedere Park.  Photo Jennifer Pottheiser

Rayleen Esparza’s strokes were developed by Mike Casarez at Belvedere Park.
Photo Jennifer Pottheiser

NJTL, with 135 Summer locations and 42 Year-Round sites, has a legendary reputation because the program has enabled thousands of economically disadvantaged youngsters – over 200,000 and counting – an opportunity to learn to play tennis. The success has been realized thanks to the LA84 Foundation. For the past thirty years, the organization has provided the essential financial stimulus to keep the courts in Southern California filled. As important as the funding is, it wouldn’t have made a significant impact were it not for the dedicated instructors who have played an essential role in the success of NJTL.

Mike Casarez teaches at Salazar and Saybrook Parks, in East Los Angeles, along with Belvedere Park, where he works with Esparza. He has made a commitment to ensure that NJTL provides tennis opportunities for those in the local Hispanic community.

Rayleen with her mother, Adriana Esparza  Photo Jennifer Pottheiser

Rayleen with her mother, Adriana Esparza
Photo Jennifer Pottheiser

He told Smith that tennis has inspired Esparza and has given her a bright future. “It (tennis) is going to be with her for her entire life,” Casarez said.

The ACE Curriculum, organized by Anna Wells, is an NJTL adjunct offering at Belvedere Park. “The program is designed to improve kids’ attitudes and behaviors when it comes to math, literacy and the school environment,” she said.

Wells added, “At thirteen, meeting and playing tennis with her favorite player, Rayleen will have to pinch herself when she gets back home. I am thrilled she was selected for this great opportunity. She is both a hard working student and player.”

Bischoff and Smith have been resolute in doing their utmost to keep NJTL in the “Opportunity for youngsters” spotlight. “Winning the twitter contest was not easy,” Bischoff said. “But putting in the time and effort, knowing that if the SCTA came out ahead in the contest it could give one of the program’s participants a treasured memory never to be forgotten, made the winning all the more fantastic.”

Smith admitted,  “We were ecstatic to find out that one of our NJTL students had a chance to go to New York. To be able to hit with Serena was the cherry on top of the perfect desert. It was a great opportunity for Rayleen and it was a big moment for NJTL locally.”

Esparza was thrilled by the New York adventure. “I’m never going to forget the trip,” she said. “It was such a memorable experience, and I want to thank Serena and Chase for making my dreams come true.”

Adriana Esparza, who accompanied her daughter on the trip,” said, “We were lucky to have been chosen to receive the trip to New York and to meet the No. 1 player (Serena Williams). I am still thrilled and very emotional about having the chance to do it. I want to thank from the bottom of my heart the LA84 Foundation/NJTL Program, along with coaches, Mike (Casarez) and Anna (Wells), and of course, Serena Williams, (and all the others), who made this possible. Rayleen and I will always keep the trip in our memories. I’m excited to see if next year Southern California will have another lucky player selected who will be fortunate to have a once in a lifetime experience.”

Casarez noted, “Rayleen always looks to be a leader and carries herself well. She has a bright future and will make an impact in the world.”

He put the New York adventure into prospective, saying, “That something as simple as tennis brought so much to a youngster’s life is really special.”

Mark Winters


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