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USTA Florida Foundation helping change lives of elementary kids in St. Petersburg

In only its second year of existence, the BLI (Believe, Learn, Inspire) Literacy Outreach and Tennis Program is making a difference for young, disadvantaged minority students in St. Petersburg, Fla., with a unique approach funded by the City of St. Petersburg, assistance from the St. Pete Tennis Center, and funding from the USTA Florida Foundation.

Serving students attending low-performing area schools, the BLI program provides four hours of tutoring in language arts and two hours of tennis coaching each week to 30 low-income elementary students, fighting against an “ailing public schools model” in the area, according to program director and founder Leah Veal.

“These funds from the USTA Florida Foundation went towards retaining certified teachers and experienced tennis coaches to work with our youth,” Veal said. “Our educational philosophy is that all children are creative, eager learners, and once given quality resources, their potential is limitless.”

The elementary school children enter a program designed to battle against a reading proficiency rate that is 25-27% for minority students in Pinellas County, according to Veal. The BLI program teaches children how to enjoy learning and become life-long learners, exposing them to vocabulary development, phonics and phonemic awareness, text-based reading strategies, writing skills, and STEAM education (an approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking).

“Children are also exposed to a rich variety of reading subjects and hands-on learning experiences, allowing them to pursue their interests and develop skills through curiosity rather than stress,” Veal says. “Students spend an average of four hours on the tennis court each week, and youth are also given healthy snacks during each lesson.”

Studies show that children who are deficient in reading are at a far greater risk of suffering from a variety of health issues, end up in lower-wage jobs, or find themselves in the juvenile welfare system. “Third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn,'” states “A KIDS COUNT Special Report” from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Millions of American children get to fourth grade without learning to read proficiently. And that puts them on the dropout track.”

A 2017 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that just 18% of Black 8th graders reach reading proficiency, a statistic that helped launch the BLI program’s campaign for education equity in South St. Petersburg.

The weekday program is offered from 5-7 p.m. and students, at no cost, and use of the tennis center adjacent to a municipal recreation center provides a seamless fit to help students already attending activities at the recreational center. The program is also a buffer against the results of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the need for supplemental education and well-being programs.

The schools the children come from comprise the “Pinellas County Transformation Zone,” which the county describes as “the district’s neediest schools.” The BLI program staff measures academic success by administering quarterly pre- and post-assessments in language arts and generating a Student Success Plan for each child. Children that receive 4-6 hours of tutoring from instructors each week develop a year’s worth of learning gains in three months, according to Veal, and parents are kept abreast of students’ healthy eating habits, regular exercise, as well as their attitudes toward school and tennis.

A former elementary school teacher, Veal combined her love of learning and tennis to address area schools “that have been labeled failure factories,” where many of the children “have been all but forgotten.”

“We are promoting healthy minds and healthy bodies,” Veal says. “We’re increasing the number of students reading at or above grade level, and introducing the great sport of tennis to more youth.”

To learn more about the program, donate or get involved, go to

About the USTA Florida Section Foundation

With a mission of “Changing Lives through Tennis,” the USTA Florida Section Foundation provides financial support to organizations that help people of all ages and abilities improve their health and quality of life through the great game of tennis. To learn more or to apply for a grant go to