|Joanne Hill – Tennis BC|

You’ve heard it before—tennis is a sport for life—but how old should you be when you take it up? The answer is that it can be any time—and it can become so much more than just a sport—Sy Silverberg is living proof.  

When I met Sy to talk to him about his non-profit kids’ program in Victoria, the Society for Kids At Tennis (KATS), I was not sure what to expect. I knew little about the program, even though I live in Victoria, other than it is celebrating its 10th year.  I knew nothing about Sy.  

Sy was already at the café where we had agreed to meet, and upon seeing me come in scanning the restaurant, he waved, stood up, and introduced himself with a warm handshake and a smile. We went through the usual motions of ordering a drink and making small talk about inconsequential things and then sat down to chat.  

One of the first things I realized about Sy is that he has an easy energy. He is calm, gentle, well-spoken, intelligent, and kind. He’s a great listener, he asks good questions, and he is genuine, especially in his desire to give back. 

Island life and tennis for life

Sy and his wife moved to Victoria about 15 years ago from Ontario. He had been retired for a while, and he and his wife eventually decided to head to where the winters are milder—Victoria. They had tried a couple of different lifestyles, including living on a rural property, but for a number of reasons, they had not felt settled. Sy says with a quiet laugh, that “Once we got to Victoria, we wondered what had taken us so long to come here—we should have done this ten years ago!” 

We are certainly blessed on the Island with our temperate climate and somewhat slower pace of life—and our many publicly accessible tennis courts! One of the other things about the Island is that it has a relatively small population and if you play tennis, you kind of get to know everyone in the tennis community, if not by name, then often by sight!  

I assumed, quite wrongly, that Sy had been a tennis player for a long time. He didn’t play as a kid. He didn’t really play much in the way of sports other than track and field. In fact, he didn’t pick up a racquet until he was 65!  

Once he got to Victoria, he took some lessons, and found his place in his new community, partly through tennis. Something that just seems to be a part of his character is the desire to give back to the place he lives in, and once he and his wife were settled firmly, he began to look for a way to do that. He and his wife discussed a number of options, but nothing seemed to be quite right, until one day, Sy’s wife said, “You love tennis, why not do something with that?” 

Love for the game builds community

The more they thought about it, the better the idea seemed. They figured that there had to be a lot of kids with financial challenges who never get the chance to try tennis because it is expensive to take lessons, and, let’s face it, it is often perceived as being something of a posh sport! In Victoria, however, with all the free courts, if you have a racquet and a ball and some basic knowledge, then you can play.

One thing Sy felt he had to do, was take the Tennis Canada Instructor’s course, so at 70+ years of age, he became a tennis instructor—the oldest person to do so, he says! He got some funding in place, and, hoping for some moderate success, they got the ball rolling to bring tennis to kids who might not otherwise experience it. 

The first year, they ran a summer camp in partnership with the Vic West Community Centre for about 30-50 kids—and typically of Victoria, word spread. “My initial idea was a summer camp for 30-50 kids each year. It exploded!” notes Sy—”and the community rallied round—when anything was needed, it was there—many, many people came forward to help.”


Initially, KATS worked with the community centres, and left it up to their staff to select the kids who would attend, figuring that they would know the audience best.  Sy notes that, while they have added more programs, “we still do that original program, only it got bigger—a lot bigger.” 

While they have continued to work with community centres, they have expanded over the years to include not just underserved kids, but kids with disabilities, neuro-diverse kids, newcomers to Canada, and indigenous kids. They also run school programs, and have expanded geographically, running programs from Sooke to Sidney, at community centres, rec centres, and on city courts. 

Each weekday kids from five to eight years old, and then kids from nine to 14, hit the courts from 4:00-6:00pm, with eight kids in each class, to get(come?) to grips with the basics of the game. It gets kids outside after school, playing and making friends with kids from their community. It’s a win for the kids and for tennis, and Sy shares a couple of stories about just how important it is.  

He remembered a child with a disability that meant it was going to be tough going. Not only did this kid get the hang of tennis, he loved it so much that he came back as a volunteer! Another child newly arrived from China with very little English made friends on the court—giving her a first step into Canadian culture.  Sy smiles, and says, “there are lots of stories like that—you just never know what will happen.”

Coaches needed! Donations welcome! 

Funding for the programs comes from grants and from other groups, like Canadian Tire’s Jump Start, the Victoria Foundation, and BC Gaming. Sy spends a fair bit of time securing funding for equipment and to pay coaches—and coaches are the biggest challenge! If you are interested, please contact Sy at KATS here: tenniskids9@gmail.com. It’s a great way to earn some money and have fun at the same time.  

So, how many kids have had a chance to play through KATS? The number is big: over 17,000 kids have been through the program in the past ten years. KATS works with seven community centres, 23 low-income schools, and 12 social agencies. It is a legacy to be proud of, and it is one that seems set to continue to grow. (City of Victoria Parks and Rec, three rec centres, seven community centres, nine social agencies, six disability agencies and 26 low-income neighbourhood schools). 

It was such a privilege to chat with Sy about KATS. He is modest about the success of the program, but he is also the driving force keeping it all going, and he is quite a force! These days at 82, he plays singles five times a week—in terms of life goals, he is an inspiration. He’s never joined a club, playing on public courts outdoors as much as he can, and indoors at the public recreation centres when the weather is bad. When our conversation came to an end and we went our separate ways, I watched Sy dash off across the road, moving like an athlete, light on his feet, and eager to get to the next challenge.  Thank you, Sy, for taking the time to share the story of KATS, it was both a privilege and a pleasure to write.

If you live in the Victoria area and are interested in being part of KATS, either as a coach, or as a donor, please contact Sy at tenniskids9@gmail.com. If you want to know more, check out the website here.