Twenty years ago, Cora Masters Barry recalls looking at a deserted parcel of land in what was then the District’s most poverty-stricken, crime-infested area. But other challenges held sway in Ward 8 including a high school dropout rate of disturbing proportion and reading and math levels as well as a level of self-esteem for the area’s youth, each at abysmal lows.

Then, she emphasizes, she received a revelation — an inspiring message foretelling pending good news.

And on Friday, Oct. 27, D.C.’s former first lady, along with hundreds of the area’s business and community leaders and well-deserving youth, will gather at that same piece of land — now transformed into The Southeast Tennis & Learning Center (SETLC) and the realization of Barry’s dream, where they’ll mark its 15th anniversary during “A Platinum Experience Celebration . . . Tennis Shoes, Ties and After Five.”

The planned festivities will also acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the Recreation Wish List Committee — a group of dedicated stalwarts who worked side-by-side with Barry in partnership with the D.C. government to build the $28 million learning and sports center.

“I looked at that land and asked myself, ‘why not use this to build an oasis for children in a safe, loving environment where they can be tutored, mentored and taught the sport of tennis,’” she said, thinking back two decades ago.

The Center, which has undergone recent renovations, often surprises people upon their first visit she notes with genuine pride.

“I know it’s because of its location and because it’s ours — made by and belonging to our people,” she said. “But God gave me the inspiration and that has always made it a very special place — it’s not the kind of building conceived in a boardroom. It was spiritual and organic from the very beginning and God’s anointing has been on the programs every moment since. It’s been a true miracle.”

“And to watch the children and their families come and go and to see how their lives have been impacted — to witness the trajectory of their rise — has been nothing but the work of God. I had a chat with Cathy Hughes a few days ago and she said if the Center were anywhere else, it would have gotten much more attention. But because it’s here in Southeast, it tends to be ignored.”

“But you know what? That’s fine. Because we’ve put together a program of excellence that seems to sit here in its own little bubble. We’ve helped our youth secure tennis scholarships to college, we’ve help young people improve their grades and we’ve seen them go in different directions — better, more positive directions. What we’ve achieved is way beyond my initial expectations and I am humbled,” Barry said.

During the gala, SETLC will salute several Washington businesspersons whose contributions have been essential to the Center’s growth and success: Debbie Jarvis (PEPCO); A. Scott Bolden, Esq. (Reed Smith); Mark Ein (Capitol Investment Corp. IV and founder, Washington Kastles); Kerry Pearson (Kerry S. Pearson LLC) and Catherine Hughes (founder/chairman, Urban One, formerly Radio One).

Each of the honorees, Barry says, has shared their time and talents on behalf of the Center’s programs and the children who continue to enter its doors.

Along with her board members, staff, volunteers and the hundreds of children and their families who have reshaped their futures because of SETLC, Barry includes tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams as part of the Center’s “family,” saying that the sisters have been supportive and present since “the first day we opened our doors.”

“The Center’s location is quite similar to the neighborhood they [Venus and Serena Williams] came out of and their backgrounds closely resemble those of our children here,” she said. “They are our role models — they are the tennis center. And they are proof that you can come out of Compton or Southeast and still conquer the world.”

For more information or tickets, call 202-678-7530.

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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