by Sue Ann Rybak
For Chestnut Hill College’s women’s tennis senior captain Kelly Dennis, tennis has always been more than just a game. It’s about nurturing relationships and executing goals. Dennis, who started playing tennis when she was just five years old, said the thing she loves most about tennis is her relationship with her mom, Judy, who was also her high school coach. Tennis allowed Dennis to nurture her relationship with her mom.
“Before every match even to this day, she tells me to ‘have fun and leave it all on the court,’” said Dennis, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. “I think of these words every time I play a match. It helps me to relax and have a good time. After every win or loss, my mom would be there waiting for me.”
Dennis, 21, credits her success to the constant love and support she receives from her mom, family and friends. Albert Stroble, Dennis’ coach, said Kelly is always willing to help another player, whether it’s with tennis or academics. He said Dennis applies “the teamwork approach” to everything she does.
“Kelly is a tremendous leader on and off the court with the way she interacts with her teammates,” said Stroble. “I truly believe she understands that when working as a team, you can achieve more.”
It is this “teamwork approach” and commitment to making a difference in other people’s lives that Athletes for a Better World (ABW), a non-profit organization committed to changing the culture of American sports by developing individual character, teamwork and civic responsibility through commitment to its “Code for Living,” named her one of five finalists in the 10th annual Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup.
The Wooden Cup, one of the most prestigious awards in sports, is presented annually to two noteworthy athletes, one collegiate and one professional, for their character and leadership both on and off the field and for their contributions to sports and society. The award is named for the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, who won 10 national championships and is considered by many to be the greatest college coach of any sport who ever lived.
Even as a teenager Dennis embodied what it meant to be one of sports’ greatest citizens. “When I was 14 years old, my friend Meghan Marth invited me over her house to watch a documentary called ‘Invisible Children,’” Dennis said. “After the movie, we were all in kind of shock and awe because these kids who were our age and younger were being abducted and forced to be soldiers. We were really moved by the film and wanted to do something. In the film, the kids said the thing they wanted most was an education and by some luck and fate we later got introduced to a woman who started a primary school in Uganda.”
After meeting Abitimo Odongkara, who founded the Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology School (UNIFAT) in Gulu, Uganda, as a freshman at Mount Notre Dame, Dennis and her friends agreed to sponsor 10 children and formed Unified for UNIFAT (U4U). It is a service club that seeks to bring aid and awareness, financially and emotionally, to the children of Gulu, Northern Uganda, who have been invisible victims of Joseph Kony’s political upheaval and the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) crimes against humanity.
The organization continued to grow and currently has 30 chapters at high schools and colleges around the U.S. In 2013, U4U became Unified for Uganda, so they could continue to support graduates of the UNIFAT School. What makes U4U unique is that it is completely student-run. Last year, they raised roughly $100,000 through sponsors and fundraisers including concerts, bake sales and an overnight event called “Experience UNIFAT.”
Besides raising funds for the UNIFAT school, it also employs four Ugandan mentors to guide the children both academically and emotionally to ensure their success in school and at home. “U4U focuses on the most destitute children,” Dennis said. “U4U identifies the children in most need and provides them with an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty, to show that a sickness they inherited doesn’t have to define them, and to dream of a brighter future.”
Dennis shared one experience during a visit to Uganda and showed me a picture of a little girl named Prisca, whom she calls her daughter. “In Uganda, they don’t use ‘mother, daughter, sister, brother’ the way we do,” Dennis said. “If it is a friend’s mom but they grew up around her, they call that woman their mother, too. It is really a beautiful thing about their culture that they are so accepting of everyone into their family.
“This little girl, my daughter Prisca, has such a special place in my heart. We got to know each other when we spent a night in the village of Pece. We slept on straw mats and sang songs by only the light of a kerosene lamp. Prisca crawled in my lap and fell asleep with her hand holding only my two fingers because her hands were so little. I’m sure you can relate the feeling of your daughter holding onto you, you being her lifeline. The person she holds onto to feel safe. That’s how I felt. I felt like I was her mother, and she was only able to sleep because of the sense of safety and love that I was bringing her. I still think of her everyday!”
Currently, the organization aided by Dennis’ efforts sponsors a total of 103 students. The cost of sponsoring a secondary boarding school student is $600. The cost of sponsoring a child in primary school is $300. U4U also hosts annual Fair Trade events that help support those in need of basic human necessities by returning all sales to the Central American, South American, and African artisans.
Dennis is also a member of CHC’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC), the Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program, the college’s Campus Ministry program, as well as countless retreats and service opportunities such as the Shriners, the CHC Empty Bowl Dinner, and TOMS “One Day without Shoes.”
On the court, Dennis is a three-time, All-Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) performer. She is CHC tennis’ all-time leader in wins (123-48, .719), responsible for 58 singles victories. (58-25, .699) and 65 doubles wins (65-23, .739). She was the third Griffin to reach the 1,000-career win mark during the 2012-2013 season, which saw her rank as high as #13 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Individual Regional Rankings.
This year’s Wooden Award recipient will be announced at a ceremony held in Atlanta on April 23. “I have always felt that as an educated young woman, I have a responsibility to do what I can,” Dennis said. “It isn’t always the easy road but I know it is the right one.”
For more information about Unified for Uganda, visit www.unifiedforuganda.com.