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MB Unsung Heroes: The Buchta Tennis Clan

May 31, 2016 10:51AM ● Published by Jeanne Fratello

L to R: Britton Henricksen, Rick Buchta, Lauren Embree & Bella Buchtee with Multi-sport Tennis Program students. Photo courtesy of Peggy Bott.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles about "unsung heroes" in Manhattan Beach. Know of someone who deserves special recognition? Drop us a line at jf@digmb.com.

By Abby Hacohen

Bella Buchta, 15, has been playing tennis since the 4th grade. Now a member of the Mira Costa tennis team, she practices 4-5 days per week. It wasn’t hard for her to fall for the sport, having grown up in a family of avid tennis players. 

Her father, Rick Buchta, played in high school and college, and has devoted over 20 years to mentoring and coaching young athletes. An advisory board member for the Junior Tennis Champions Center outside Washington D.C., Rick has nurtured many young athletes around the country, several of whom have gone on to compete professionally & with the NCAA. The Buchtas regularly open their home to host young players, enabling them to train in the South Bay and compete in Southern California national tournaments. Bella’s two brothers, Sammy and Nicholas, also play – the former for Mira Costa’s team as well.

Three years ago, Rick left a finance career behind to open RAMP Tennis, a specialized youth tennis training program based at StubHub’s USTA Training Center in Carson. But tennis can be an expensive & exclusive sport when you factor in the equipment, court availability and fees, not to mention the time it takes to perfect one’s game. Looking around, he wondered, “How can we create the same opportunities for other players that we ourselves had?”

With partner Peggy Bott, Buchta founded First Break Academy in 2014, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the advancement of tennis and learning by championing opportunity, fitness, education, and compassion for others. At the core of First Break’s mission is diversity and inclusion, exposing students not traditionally given the chance to play tennis the opportunity to develop their game and increase their physical literacy with the same attention to detail as is given to the sport’s best players.

With the support of First Break, RAMP Tennis has partnered with Leapwood Elementary School in Carson, just a mile from the StubHub Center, as well as Environmental Charter Middle School in Gardena. For ECMS, First Break and RAMP provide Monday morning tennis, soccer and breakfast as well as a seasonal after school tennis empowerment program for sixth grade girls. At Leapwood, RAMP facilitates a monthly Tennis in PE experience for its roughly 300 K-5 students. There are no courts at Leapwood, so RAMP Tennis brings mini nets and 100 rackets to campus in order to give the students authentic instruction and exposure to the game.

Recently, with support from the USTA Foundation and legendary tennis player Pam Shriver, First Break Academy initiated a program to bring 38 Leapwood students to the RAMP courts at StubHub three days per week for tennis, soccer and basketball training as well as education enrichment.

Says Bott, “The opportunity to learn, play and study at the StubHub Center,  home to professional athletes, is exciting for these kids. They work out alongside RAMP’s most advanced group.  It’s inspiring when one of these more experienced players works out with our beginners.”

Students at RAMP Tennis are invited to volunteer their time with the First Break Academy program as well as other RAMP Outreach Give Back events. Bella has been deeply involved from the very beginning. Bott enthuses, “With Bella, everything is very natural.  She’s a leader in this.  She gets on the court and engages the kids.” Bott continues, “She’s making an impact at a very young age.  Her energy attracts all the children to her, and I feel lucky to be witness to Bella's growing confidence and impact.“

Bella now folds twice weekly volunteer service into her already rigorous tennis training, tossing balls, demonstrating strokes and rallying with the kids. “I’ve always loved children,” says Bella. “This gave me the opportunity to do more.” 

Bella’s commitment is infectious and inspiring. As the program grows, more student players from Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes are lending their time to the RAMP Give Back effort, creating a bridge between communities. Since its inception in 2013, RAMP coaches, players, families and friends have cumulatively contributed over 600 hours of volunteerism. Even major USTA players have lent their time to the First Break pilot program by getting on the court to play tennis with the Leapwood Elementary students.  As Rick Buchta says, “It takes an army of volunteers.”

The best part?  “Seeing them smile and have fun,” says Bella, “And trying new things.”

The Buchtas now hope the RAMP Tennis community effort will serve as a model for other programs around the country. Bott has been successful in securing much grant money for their program. Buchta concurs: “Tennis is expensive, but there’s a way to do it and make it accessible.” 

For more information, visit http://ramptennis.com/firstbreak.html

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