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New Bradenton program to use tennis to teach kids about health

MANATEE — The Panda Project, a new program that will offer free tennis lessons starting in mid-January, 2012 for any child who is age 6 through 10 in Manatee County. officially kicked off Thursday.

“This isn’t about creating tennis champions,” project co-partner Nick Bollettieri of Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy said during a noon press conference in the boardroom at Manatee Memorial Hospital.

“This is about getting white, black, brown, blue, green, all kids together for an organized activity that will teach them about nutrition, fitness, health while giving them hope that there is a whole lot they can achieve in their lives,” Bollettieri said.

Panda Project Tennis is scheduled to debut Jan. 16 at The Church of the Cross Community Center, Palmetto Youth Center and 13th Avenue Dream Center, Robert “Bob” Davis, president of the Panda Foundation, said Thursday.

Negotiations are also in the works to bring the program to Bayshore Elementary School, Davis added.

The project is funded through grants and donations and will be supported by the American Tennis Association, Manatee Memorial Hospital, Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and The Panda Foundation, which is dedicated to under-served children locally, Davis said.

Davis, Bollettieri, Albert Tucker of the American Tennis Association and Vernon Desear, vice president of marketing and business development at Manatee Memorial Hospital, all spoke briefly about the program.

Desear outlined how children in the program will be provided instruction on the importance of a healthy lifestyle, as well as instruction in oral hygiene under a partnership between Manatee Memorial and the Panda Foundation that will be called Urban Healthnet, Desear said.

The hospital, which will also do health screenings for the kids, will send out to the courts some of its regular physicians who wish to donate their time as well as participants in the new residency program, Desear said.

“We are focusing on preventive because so many kids come into these settings with no prior treatment and no on-going health care,” Desear said. “We want to educate and enlighten them on the obvious benefits for preparing yourself for the future.”

The Panda Project had a mascot at the press conference in a panda costume as well as a young and rising tennis star to inspire the students.

The tennis star is Alexus Jones, 14, who has already turned pro and who lives and plays at IMG Academies in Bradenton.

“I hope this program will set kids on a good track in life,” Alexus said after the event. “For me, tennis has provided focus and how to handle yourself.“

The Panda Project estimates that 500 to 700 youth who currently attend the three youth sites will participate in the program.

Each location will receive tennis programming twice per week, Davis said.

Once each month, local mentors will be invited to talk to the children.

Parents and guardians who have questions about the program can call Davis at 941-538-7115.