On September 22, Forgirlsake will hold its sixth annual Women’s Doubles Tennis Open fundraising event.
Founded in 2006, the nonprofit organization raises money to support girls’ education in underdeveloped countries such as India, Uganda, and Tanzania. The round robin-format fundraiser draws area tennis lovers for a morning of friendly competition, shopping, and doing good.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Stephanie Zelman, co-founder of Forgirlsake and the annual tennis event.
What got you interested in starting this charity?
It started when some high school friends and I organized our 20th high school reunion in 2005. We held the reunion in Montreal where we went to school, and had such a fantastic time reconnecting after so long, I think many of us just wanted to keep it going. I thought, “If we could organize a reunion remotely from different cities, why not work together on something bigger and more meaningful?” We started talking, and since we attended an all-girls school, it didn’t take long for us to decide on a mission!
At the start I did some simple math. If at least ten of us asked twenty people for $20, that would amount to $4000. In countries like Kenya or Peru, that could really accomplish something. I realized it isn’t hard to raise funds in small amounts. It’s the cost of a few lattes.
Later, I started tying fundraising to activities. The first event I organized was a candlelight yoga evening. Another year when I was into movement and strengthening, we did an event in a gym. Later I thought, “Why aren’t I doing tennis? I love tennis!”
I work on the event committee with incredible women–just smart, dedicated, and passionate about tennis and girls’ education. And because of them, we’re able to pull this off every year.
How many people are involved in getting this event off the ground?
Four other women are on the committee with me: Deb Cronin, Noura Guermazi, Emilie Kendall, and Sami O’Reilly. Lisa Rinkus handles our public relations. And girls on the Newton North and South High School teams pitch in at the event with setting up, staffing our merchandise booths, and collecting scorecards after the matches.
How many hours of planning does this event take?
Oh gosh, I couldn’t even say — so many! We start working on it in the early spring. In the summer it’s hard to get much accomplished because people aren’t around, so we have to start early.
How much money did the tennis event raise last year?
We raised $8,000, and hopefully we can match that this year. And because the event is volunteer-run, all the funds go directly to the programs we’re supporting. But I think the event’s successful, regardless of the amount we raise, as long as everyone has a great time.
Where does the money go?
For the last twelve years, we’ve been working on different projects such as helping to build libraries or schools, or pay tuition. Now we’re partnering with Shadhika in India for three years. We’re raising a total of $30,000 to send ten girls to college.
We always partner with existing nonprofits because we’re not on the ground managing projects. There are so many organizations that already have structures in place but just need funding. So it makes sense to help organizations with the same mission as ours achieve their goals.
Sometimes I feel like it’s not enough. There’s so much discrimination and violence against women and girls in underdeveloped countries, and what we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket. But then I tell myself that the girls we’re helping, they themselves will go on to make a difference.
Do you ever hear from the girls that you’re helping?
We get letters from some of the girls we’ve supported in Tanzania, and we’re pen pals with students in the Shadhika program. But it’s really rewarding to get reports from our partners. Recently we learned about parents in India who didn’t understand the need for education for their daughters but who are now realizing their worth. Rather than forcing them into marriage, they see that their girls are just as intelligent and capable as their sons. One of the girls is now helping with her family’s finances. From having no voice to being valued in this way? I love that story.
Have you always been involved in volunteer work?
Here and there, but it was around the time of the high school reunion that I started wanting to do more. And once I decided to take it on seriously, I thought, if I’m going to be devoting all these hours, why don’t I just drive it?
And what I’ve learned is, really, anybody can do anything. If you have an idea, go for it. You learn as you go along. I didn’t know anything about philanthropy or running a charity when I started. And there’s still so much I don’t know. You do your best, you try to be as transparent as possible, and just have a lot of gratitude for those who support you. Anybody can make a difference.
Have you been surprised by the way the community has embraced this cause?
Oh, yes. It’s been amazing. Obviously, none of us need an excuse to play tennis! But this just brings the fun to another level.
What aspect of the fundraiser are you proudest of?
The $8,000 we raised last year was terrific. And I love the sponsorships — the fact that there are all these great local businesses who want to help the cause. And I’m glad we can promote them, too. Our event supports girls’ education, but it’s also about bringing together a community of women. It’s about having a great day.
I never think of it as being proud. I’m just thankful so many friends sign up to play, and for the committee and volunteers that make this happen. When it’s over each year, there’s a big sigh of relief! But then, on to the next one!
Date: Saturday, 9/22 (Rain Date: Sunday, 9/23)
Time: Choose either 9 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. (Arrive 45 minutes early to check in and warm up)
Place: Newton North High School, Newton, MA
Level of play: Intermediate to intermediate-advanced (3.0-4.5 USTA rating)
No partner necessary! You and a friend can each register and play together, or you can register solo and get matched with a compatible player.
For more information and to register for this fun and worthy event, go to forgirlsake.org/tennis.