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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

It Takes a Village – In Honor of Steve Wilkinson

One year ago today, Steve died. I have spent the year in mourning. And talking to him. And hearing him answer me back.

On the opening night of last weekend’s TLC Winter Retreat Camp, I spoke with the kids about my friendship with Steve and how the mission of TLC continues on through all of us. I told the kids I still talk with Steve all the time. And he answers me. Whenever I need advice, I ask him what I should do. He always smiles and says, “Be yourself. Do not try to be someone else. And go with your strengths. It’s the only way it will work.” That advice is how the retreat camps started five years ago. When I address the campers, I say what I believe: Every single person in this room has something unique to add to the conversation. You have something no one else can give. If we respect that and put all of our uniqueness together, we just might find some answers.

We just finished the second of three retreat camps, bringing together urban and rural 8th graders on full scholarship to have a ball – ok, bad pun – on court learning tennis, singing, and watching goofy skits on sportsmanship. And to having difficult dialogue on privilege in our society, to become more aware of – and then work to change, using the Three Crowns of positive attitude, full effort, and good sportsmanship – the institutions and systems that keep many in our society from experiencing equality.


Some kids arrived without rackets. One girl arrived without shoes. Many – in sub-zero temperatures – only had a light sweatshirt to keep “warm”.   Not by choice, as would be the case with my own teenaged daughter, but because they do not own a coat. This is the reality of a lot of people in the world. In our country. In our city. And, it is the reality for some of you, in your neighborhood or your own life.

Some people have said to us it is not TLC’s job to bring these things up. “You are a tennis camp.” And then we look at a child without shoes through no fault of her own, who wants to play tennis and think, how can we not?

One girl from the city spoke matter-of-factly about shootings in her neighborhood as if it was as normal and reasonable as weekly bridge club. She is 13.

A rural girl told me flat out she was not smart. Because that is what she has been told. This kid has the most imaginative, creative mind, and added insights to the group that had the other kids clapping.

We hear stories of what it is like to be handcuffed as an 8th grader at the mall for a mistake the clerk made by not taking off the tag of a legally bought shirt. And how this was not unusual for the kids of color in the room, but unheard of to those of us with white skin. Or how one of our TLC staff of color returned to his locker when he was in high school school to find a racist epithet written on his locker. These things had not happened to the white students.


We talk about how girls are 43% of all sports participants in this country and get 3% of the media coverage. (That is not a typo). We discuss some of the things boys and men say to girls and women on the street, in school, in the business world, in songs, on the tennis court, that would never be allowed said in the reverse.

We talk about Billie Jean King, who, in her fight for equal rights for girls, was asked, “Why don’t you fight for the rights of boys, too?” and answered, “I spend my time fighting for girls because they are underserved. If boys were underserved, that’s where I would spend my time. But they’re not.”

The same can be said for race, or sexual orientation, or religion.

Then we try to figure out ways the Three Crowns can help address unjust systems. We don’t have all the answers. Or many. Because it is so complex. But we do believe we have the responsibility to try and we have a tool to use.


At the end of the retreat, the kids wrote thank you notes to the instructors and to the three individual donors/families who sponsored the camp (Gratitude is what our entire camp is based on). Each camper was asked to write three. One girl shyly asked me for help, as she was not sure how to construct a thank you note. She wanted to write all three donors. We worked on the notes together. When she finished, I said she had completed the task, so she was done. She said, “Can I try it by myself now? Now I want to write the instructors.” So she did. She put her head down and went at it.

When camp broke and she was leaving, this girl, who had not spoken in the large group sessions, who is facing huge obstacles just getting to school in the morning, let alone getting to college, on the way out the door gave the instructors big hugs, and as she passed me she stopped and said, “Please tell Steve ‘Hi’ from me.


Steve knew it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a village to snuff out the light of a child. It will take a village – our entire society looking deeply at itself – to light that light again.

Hi, Steve. I miss you. And thank you.


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