Former tennis pro Charlie Cutler packed up his rackets and traded the California Tennis Club for Sonora, Mexico, where he introduced tennis to Mexican children this summer.
What Cutler leaves behind when he returns to San Francisco at the end of the week — besides ample tennis equipment and enthusiastic young players — is a hope that the tennis program continues.
He hopes Green Valley can help.
Cutler met with Karen Philpott, president of the Green Valley Tennis Club, to see if club members could help recruit volunteer instructors to keep the new program alive.
"I was really impressed with Charlie and what he is trying to do,” Philpott said. “If we can get some Spanish-speaking instructors willing to visit Mexico on a rotating schedule, I think that is manageable if the board approves. I think it's a great idea."
Philpott said the tennis club, a Green Valley Recreation-sanctioned group, is also aware of tennis players in Nogales, Ariz., who may be willing to "kick off the program" until some of the club's regular instructors return from their summer vacations.
Crossing the net
Cutler, 28, uses tennis to unite two cultures.
Though he speaks Spanish, Cutler said the kids, almost of whom had never handled a tennis racket or even seen the sport played, communicated by engaging.
"Teaching kids is awesome, no matter where they live," he said. "My life has been good and I finally realized that I can use tennis as a tool to show these kids that they have a purpose and there's more to life out there."
As the kids became more familiar with tennis, Cutler said the number who participated increased.
"I would have a group of them out on the court every Tuesday for about an hour and a half," Cutler said. "I am by no means an expert on border issues and all the political players involved, but working with kids is just a start to making them understand there are people who want to help them."
Many of the 20 or more kids that regularly showed up had parents or relatives who worked in a maquiladora, Cutler said.
"They are the poor and underserved population and opportunities like playing tennis wasn't in their future, and so now that they have the opportunity, I want it to continue," he said.
He credits the Border Community Alliance, a Tubac-based organization that focuses on cultural, economic and humanitarian issues of the Arizona borderlands, for selecting him and two other college students for the summer internship program that gave them experience on the border.
He spent the last five years playing and coaching tennis professionally but now is pursuing a master's degree in international studies, concentrating on Latin America and human rights. He intends to use his internship experiences as research for his thesis.
Cutler said he was looking for an internship focused on humanitarian relief and human rights when he learned about BCA. The other two interns were Christine Dicker and Alex Arriaga.
After being accepted, Cutler researched the areas he'd be visiting in Mexico and started asking for tennis equipment donations and fundraising for the gear he couldn't get donated.
"It helps to have friends in the tennis industry," he said.
He managed to collect more than three dozen rackets, dozens of tennis balls and enough nets to get a game going on a makeshift court on the grounds of the DeiJuven Community Center in Nogales, Sonora.
"There weren't any tennis courts in the border towns we visited so I marked them out myself and put up the nets," he said. "The one at DeiJuven was pretty good and the kids started playing and really got into it."
The other side
Cutler, who was once ranked 137 in the U.S. and 1,421 in the world among tennis players, spent two years playing professionally. While on the pro circuit, he "began to feel that there was something missing."
"During my tennis career, I played a lot in Latin America, and although I was focused on the sport, I always wondered what was on the other side of the walls," Cutler said. "I was sheltered in the tennis world and stayed at the fancier hotels, but what I've discovered is the whole contradiction to that lifestyle. The poorer, underserved areas and the border culture tells an entirely different story."
The summer interns worked with many volunteers, including Peg Bowden.
Bowden, a percussionist with the Green Valley Stage Band and a retired nurse, volunteers once a week at a migrant shelter known as El Comedor, or "the dining room," on the Mexican border, something she has done for the past five years. She accompanies the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans, who provide food, water, medical aid and clothing to migrants in U.S. and in Nogales, Mexico.
Passionate about her experiences, Bowden, who lives in Rio Rico, just 12 miles from the border, helped develop the college intern program that allows students to experience a blended society impacted by Mexican and American culture.
"We've done this for the last four years and it's always an eye-opener for the students because it's like a reality check of the bicultural society we find on the border," she said. "We were able to do so much."
Cutler and the other interns spent a lot of time helping out as well as learning the issues that affect the migrants.
"Some of these people have just been deported from the U.S. and they are hungry and uncertain of their future," Cutler said. "Some are only children and young mothers and they desperately need help."
The interns spent a day with the Border Patrol and also visited the grounds near Douglas where a female migrant died in the desert.
"Using GPS coordinates, we went to the site and had a small ceremony and put up a cross with her name," Cutler said. "Sister Judy, a nun who advocates for migrants and works at a migrant shelter, was devoted to her mission to help these people. It made me realize that these migrants need to be recognized and someone has to be an advocate for those wishing for a better life. "
The interns, who lived in Nogales, Arizona, in an apartment supplied by BCA, made daily trips to Mexico.
On one venture they visited Casa Hogar Madre Conchita, a girls shelter in Nogales, Sonora.
"It was an impressive image and something that I needed to see that just reinforces my belief in human rights and advocating for these people," Cutler said. "I am thinking about going to law school and concentrating on immigration law."
On another occasion, Cutler said they assisted volunteers in placing white crosses along a street in Nogales, Arizona, with the names of migrants who perished in the desert on their way to the U.S.
"I'd like to return to Mexico and resume my work there," Cutler said. "I'm going for a Fulbright Scholarship and that may give me the opportunity to come back. Until then, if I can just get some tennis players to keep the kids playing that would be so beneficial."
Regina Ford | 547-9740