USTA Foundation, founded by Lancaster’s Judy Levering, won ESPY award for pairing tennis with education for inner-city youth

As a former president of the U.S. Tennis Association, Lancaster’s Judy Levering is accustomed to flying to London every July to see the finals at Wimbledon.

This year she took a detour.

On July 11, she and her husband, Gordon, were in Los Angeles for the ESPYs — ESPN’s annual awards show.

Levering, 78, serves on the board of the USTA Foundation, the national charitable organization she founded. That night, the foundation won the 2017 ESPN League Humanitarian Award. The award honors a professional sports league for its driving social impact.

“As you can imagine,” she says during an interview in her Lancaster home, “I was thrilled.”

Levering knows tennis. As the first female president of the United States Tennis Association in 1999-2000, she ran an organization that oversees every aspect of the sport in this country, from the U.S. Open to player development to junior and professional tournaments.

As much as she enjoyed heading the organization, the USTA Foundation is her baby. It serves inner-city youth by pairing tennis with education.

Her feeling: “Sports, having the power that it has, should step in and help where help is needed. We were a sport that was making a lot of money. What we were after was using tennis to serve the underserved youth to help them focus on their education.”

Dan Faber, USTA Foundation’s executive director, singled out Levering for her passion and commitment.

“Judy’s vision made it happen,” he says.

Grants and scholarships

Since its inception, the foundation has handed out more than $25 million in grants and scholarships. The grants are largely funneled to National Junior Tennis and Learning Network centers throughout the country. The program was established in 1969 by the late former tennis champion and humanitarian Arthur Ashe, former player and tennis director Charlie Pasarell and venture capitalist Sheridan Snyder.

That program came under the USTA umbrella in 1994 and has had a remarkable record of success since being folded into the foundation.

“Most of these programs have almost 99 percent high school graduation,” Levering says. “That’s huge when you think about the population they are serving.”

USTA President Katrina Adams said the foundation’s goal is about producing better people.

“It’s about giving them the opportunity, getting better grades (and) getting

tutoring,” she said prior to attending a gala Monday evening hosted by actor Alec Baldwin and tennis pro Martina Navratilova that raised $1.1 million for the foundation.

A top charity

Although the USTA Foundation has earned Charity Navigator’s top rating, the ESPY – short for the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly award – validates their work, Levering said.

“There are a lot of charities out there,” she says. “To earn credibility is very important because it’s difficult to try to go out and raise money.”

The USTA covers nearly 100 percent of the foundation’s administrative costs, she says, “so when we go out and ask for money, we can tell people it’s going (to programming.)”

Several weeks ago, she, Faber and foundation president Tom Chen made a presentation to a corporate executive in New York.

“We were talking and said we had just won this award. He said ‘Really?’ You could tell it made an impression on him.”

It was, she says, a profitable meeting.

“I’ve had that happen a couple of times. (It goes) back to the power of sports; (people) know how powerful an ESPY is.”

Then again, those who know Levering recognize her ability to negotiate deals. As a member of the USTA board, she acquired the moniker “the Velvet Hammer” for her ability to quietly get things done.

When the USTA built its giant stadium in New York, she was the person most responsible for having it named for Ashe, a tennis great and humanitarian.

In 1999, she named mercurial John McEnroe Davis Cup captain and had a role in convincing top tennis stars Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to play Davis Cup for the United States, which they had shunned for various reasons.

Rewarding experience

Levering said that as much as she enjoys working with the foundation at the national level, it’s the work she does at the local level that is most rewarding.

For the past two years, she and her husband, who retired as an executive at Armstrong World Industries, have been working with Advantage Lancaster — an educational mentorship program for at-risk youths. The program focuses on education, career opportunities, health, community service and the arts.

Edward Hand Middle School teachers Shayne Meadows    and Ty Bair co-founded Advantage Lancaster 15 years ago. They met the Leverings through a mutual friend.

“They were looking for a group working at the grass-roots level,” Meadows says.

The Leverings, Bair says, are in the process of finding donors to help renovate a building adjacent to Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology for Advantage Lancaster that would be accessible for youths throughout the city.

Advantage Lancaster has mentored young Lancaster city residents who not only have graduated from high school but have gone on to college. That includes five Advantage Lancaster youths who have earned full scholarships.

Tennis Central — a local organization that promotes the growth of tennis — put on a pair of clinics for Advantage Lancaster in August. It was the first time many of the youths had held a tennis racquet.

Meadows participated in the National Junior Tennis and Learning program in Philadelphia as a youth and is thrilled with the idea of combining tennis and education.

“Tennis,” he says, “aligns with our wellness principle.”

“The kids were great,” Levering says. “These kids have the brains, they have the personality and they have what it takes. They just need the opportunity.”

Once again, Judy Levering is working to create those opportunities.