Charlie Cutler believes that if you give people the right tools and a little push, they can do big things.

And sometimes the tool can be something as simple as a tennis racket.

Cutler, a former tennis pro from San Francisco, spent last summer in Nogales as an intern for Community Border Alliance, a Tubac-based group that focuses on issues on both sides of the border. He held several tennis clinics in Nogales, Sonora, for kids and continued to develop a vision with a much bigger reach.

But among the first steps was keeping the cross-border tennis clinics going after the internship ended and he returned to California to work on the overall plan. That’s where Green Valley comes in.

The GVR Tennis Club heard about Cutler’s work and thought they could help. Club president Karen Philpott met with him last summer and loved the idea of taking tennis clinics to Mexico. The club's 450 members have done occasional community outreach but Philpott wanted more.

“When I took over, I said I want us to be bigger than just the Tennis Club,” she said. So she took it to the next level — and, initially at least, got a funny reaction.

“When I told the tennis board that I wanted to take this on and do it, they looked at me like I was crazy,” she said with a laugh. Eventually they came around, and Philpott started arranging the club’s first trip south.

“I had a big learning curve,” she said. “I thought I could throw two or three club members in the car and head over. But, no…”

The trip involved arranging schedules, collecting equipment, fundraising, looking at security and lining up transportation. They received invaluable support from FESAC, a Nogales, Sonora, group that partners with Community Border Alliance on cross-border programs.

Philpott put out the word via email to Tennis Club members – be part of something big, something important. She knew club members had something to offer, but she also wanted to use the opportunity to break down stereotypes about Mexico.

“I didn’t want to focus on the drug traffickers and the problems, but on the working people,” she said. She wanted them to see that Mexico is more than dentists, shopping and pharmacies.

There was reluctance at first, and not many takers. Eventually, she approached people one-on-one about driving 20 minutes beyond the border to set up portable nets and teach tennis at Casa Hogar Madre Conchita, home to more than 20 girls.

“It'll change attitudes once we get down there,” she told herself.

Heading down

On Saturday, the club held a fundraiser in Green Valley pitting two former pros against the University of Arizona tennis team, and raised about $2,500 for the program, called BYTE — Border Youth Tennis Exchange. On Sunday, nine club members gathered in Green Valley for a quick lesson on how to teach tennis fundamentals to kids, then loaded up a borrowed van and headed to their first clinic in Sonora.

Once over the border, they took a tour of BCA/FESAC programs, had lunch, then drove to the children’s home where nets were set up on a well-used basketball court next to a park.

After a warm-up jog around the court, it didn’t take long for about 20 girls from Madre Conchita to pick up rackets and start swinging — some like pros. For club members who didn’t speak Spanish, language wasn’t an issue. Tennis basics are best shown, not spoken. The girls caught on quickly and for just over an hour had fun as balls soared across two makeshift courts.

The tennis pros from Saturday’s exhibit joined them — Matthew Berry of South Africa, a tennis pro at the California Tennis Club in San Francisco, and Juan Pablo di Cesare, a former pro from Argentina who teaches languages at the University of San Francisco. Both are friends of Cutler and flew in to support his budding work.

“They asked me to help, but at the end of the day I feel like they’re helping me,” di Cesare said as he helped set up nets.

When all the balls were gathered and the nets packed up, Cutler called the outing a win.

“I was very pleased with how it went. It was a trial run but I thought it was very successful.”

He wants to turn the cross-border clinics into a regular event and the Tennis Club is on board — they’re already planning an April trip.

The vision grows

The effort is a key part of a program Cutler has been building toward for months. He plans to move to the Rio Rico area full time in October, and will fly in every few weeks until then.

The vision is to use BYTE to build bridges across the border to help youths on both sides through education, health and life skills as they promote international trust and bi-cultural immersion.

He has already built an impressive array of support on both sides of the fence.

He met Monday with the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, and has the backing of the U.S. Tennis Association Foundation along with several other influential groups in the United States. He also has several schools and organizations in Mexico on board, including those serving the deaf, Down syndrome and autistic children. The Boys & Girls Club of Santa Cruz County will host events on this side of the border.

Core support comes from Border Community Alliance and FESAC (Fundacion del Empresariado Sonorense), with whom he did his internship last summer. Those groups operate on either side of the border and have a long partnership and deep understanding of the area, along with connections. Cutler calls their support and direction invaluable.

“I'm very impressed with the partners I'm working with down there,” he said. “Without them, this would not be possible. I have a unique expertise, but they're the backbone of what we'll be doing down there.”

The goal is broad, and includes branching out to after-school programs, mentoring and more. Cutler, who recently finished a master’s degree in International Human Rights at the University of San Francisco, has secured one grant and is working on more. He said he has raised about one-third of what he needs to run the program the first year.

“This is what I want to do,” he said. “I think this tennis education model is an interesting niche career that gives a lot of potential for creative advocacy.”

Philpott also looks forward to getting the Tennis Club involved to allow Cutler's program to take root and flourish.

“Tennis offers them a vehicle, an entertainment of sorts,” she said. “Tennis is the fun part. But Charlie's program also is going to offer them education.”

Dan Shearer | 547-9770

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