Nearly 1,000 people packed inside the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center (AAYTE) in East Falls on Friday for the center’s 28th annual benefit, Champions for Children.
A silent auction kicked off the evening with more than 475 items on display, from bottles of wine to sports paraphernalia autographed by professionals.
The event was a celebration of the non-profit tennis center, located on Ridge Avenue, which works to create opportunities for a diverse group of young people, especially those from low-income families, through tennis instruction and leadership development programming.
President Kenny Holdsman moved through the crowd greeting people and shaking hands.
“We put a lot of emphasis on “friend-raising” and fundraising through our benefit,” Holdsman said in between handshakes.
One friend in the crowd was Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden and longtime supporter of AAYTE. Conant was the guest of honor on Friday night and was awarded the Champions for Children award later in the evening.
A humble man, Conant said he was honored for the recognition of the work he had done, but quickly added “we can always do more”.
The longtime tennis player received a scholarship to play tennis at Northwestern University and continues to play today. And although he will be leaving his post as CEO of Campbell’s Soup in July, Conant will continue working with AAYTE.
“[Arthur Ashe] created conversations that went beyond tennis and tried to make a better world,” said Conant, adding, “I want to contribute to the conversation.”
Chairman of the Board Jerry Johnson said honoring Conant made sense because of his great support over the years and his role in helping further the reach of AAYTE by introducing tennis to underprivileged youth in Camden.
As a city with the majority of the population falling below the poverty line, involvement with such a program creates a springboard to achieve more in life.
Lance Lee is a perfect example.
Growing up in Mt. Airy, Lee could have traveled a troubled path. He opted instead for tennis, a path he saw as a way out. Kids in the neighborhood would tease him saying that he was playing a “corny country club sport”. But that didn’t stop him from going to AAYTE. Through the organization, Lee has competed all over the world, from the Caribbean to Sweden.
“[Tennis] opened the world to me,” Lee said.
After graduating from law school in 2005, Lee returned to Philadelphia and started teaching at AAYTE. He could have continued work as a district attorney, but Lee wanted to help kids in the way that he was helped so long ago.
Tennis, he says, is a different kind of sport. It is a solitary game without teammates to rely upon, and many times there aren’t chair umpires or line judges to enforce rules and call shots in or out.
“You’re on your own on the court, and a lot of times in life you’re on your own,” Lee said.
The tennis center raised roughly $850,000 at Friday night’s event which will go towards the non-profit’s operating budget.