Parents Defend Endangered Tennis, Education Programs for D.C. Youths

Cora Masters Barry founded Wish List.
Cora Masters Barry founded Wish List. (Hamil Harris - Tp)
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By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Antanae Horton, 13, has played tennis at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center for three years. But it's not just exercise that keeps her coming back.

"I have met Oprah Winfrey, President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson and Dr. Dorothy Height," the teen said.

Her mother, Demetrice Johnson, said the center changed her daughter's life. Johnson credits Cora Masters Barry, a driving force behind the $5.1 million complex that has introduced thousands to tennis since opening in 2001. But a large part of the programming, provided by the foundation Barry heads, is devoted to education and outings.

"Antanae was a troubled child before Mrs. Barry came into her life," Johnson said. "She would get into fights and do bad in school, but now I have a new child, and her grades are excellent."

Johnson was among more than a dozen parents who rallied behind Barry and members of her Recreation Wish List Committee after the city notified the group last week that it had 30 days to vacate the center. City officials said the group can no longer partner with the city because its corporate registration has been revoked.

The District owns the facility, and the Department of Recreation staffs it. But Wish List, founded in 1995, spearheaded the effort to build the facility, which features a library, classrooms and computer lab with 17 stations. Wish List staffs several programs at the facility and has donated $1.5 million to the facility since 2001, Barry said. The organization has said that any discrepancy with their registration can be cleared up.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said that Barry's eviction notice was due to a technical issue and added, "These things usually get worked out."

But D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said that was not an option. "Legally, you can't give them a break. This is not the fault of the city. They should have known better. They were trying to do business with the city when they knew their status as a registered D.C. corporation had been revoked by the government."

As the two sides spar, parents wonder what will change for their children if Wish List is evicted. Debra Johnson said that her son "was very angry on the inside" before coming to the tennis center.

Sherita Evans said her son performed poorly in school before participating in its programs.

"They're not just providing tennis lessons," Evans said. "My child knows if he doesn't get his work, I am not just coming to him, but Mrs. Barry is coming to him and the tennis coach is coming to him and saying, 'Where is your homework?' "

Last month, Fenty and Ximena Hartsock, interim director of the District's Department of Parks and Recreation, announced a new partnership with the United States Tennis Association to offer tennis lessons in most of the city's recreation centers. Barry said she has not been asked to be part of the city's program.

Hartsock has declined to comment about the city's plan for the tennis center but said the city is committed to expanding tennis education. This summer, between 3,000 and 4,000 teens and preteens are participating in Camp Discovery, which offers them 45 minutes of tennis training each day.

Barry, the estranged wife of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), said she wants to continue to help the children.

"I am 64," she said. "This is my reason for living. This is the best job that anybody could have doing things for kids."

D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), whose committee oversees the recreation department, said that he plans to have an oversight hearing.

"Mrs. Barry is not being afforded due process that other groups have been afforded," he said. "This is strange precedence."

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