First Serve uses tennis to help refugee children connect and adapt

It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.

For refugees from disaster-stricken countries like Nepal, Congo and Bhutan, resettling in American cities like Abilene, TX, represents a daunting adjustment. So when 13-year-old Drake Coleman couldn’t find any opportunities to volunteer directly with refugee children, he decided to create his own. And thus, First Serve was born.

Launched in 2013, First Serve uses tennis lessons as a tool for helping refugee children make connections with each other and the larger community. With help from his mother, Cathie, and the Abilene office of the International Rescue Committee—as well as funding from the USTA—Drake, now 17, combined his passions of service work and tennis to form an invaluable resource for his town’s newest residents.

"It's such a good sport because it lends itself to teaching integrity and honesty,” Cathie says. “How you conduct yourself on the court, good sportsmanship, shaking hands—the whole thing."

First Serve uses tennis to help refugee children connect and adapt

First Serve uses tennis to help refugee children connect and adapt

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"It's little things like that, inside the core of tennis, that make it great for broader application,” Drake says, “especially for people who maybe didn't get that foundation because of the chaos they've had in their lives.”

Three years in, First Serve is a well-established program that’s run primarily by the Abilene High School varsity tennis team. Naturally, things were less organized in the early days of the initiative, as 13-year-old Drake had to learn the role of tennis coach on the fly.

"It was interesting,” he says. “I was able to relate to them more than an adult tennis coach would. With them being new to the country, I think I was approachable. A lot of it was going slow, regurgitating what I'd been taught in my tennis experience and being patient. I wanted to hone in on what they enjoyed doing, and we'd do that."

Now at boarding school in North Carolina, Drake looks back at his initial involvement with First Serve as an incredibly formative experience—his first encounter with the “real world.”

"It's taught me so much,” he says. “I don't even know how to put it in words. How to be considerate, interested and invested in other people—how to put myself in other people's shoes."