Students dribbled tennis balls and made volley hits on a makeshift court behind the Boys and Girls Club in Nogales on Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, inside the center, their peers used computer tablets to photograph artwork illustrating poems they wrote – they’ll eventually turn the project into a narrated video.

The students, age 8-12, are participants of the Border Youth Tennis Exchange – an Ambos Nogales-based nonprofit with humble origins.

“This was totally a side project just for fun,” BYTE founder and Rio Rico resident Charlie Cutler said.

But what started with Cutler volunteering as a tennis instructor in Nogales, Sonora has since evolved into a free, highly structured binational tennis, education and cross-cultural exchange program.

While researching asylum processing in the summer of 2015 for his graduate studies, Cutler, a former professional tennis player and longtime coach, casually volunteered as a tennis instructor in Mexico. The enthusiastic response from the students inspired him to launch BYTE, which he said uses tennis as a “hook” to engage Ambos Nogales youth in positive after school activities.

Cutler, 30, teaches tennis lessons at the Boys and Girls Club, as well as a youth center and two shelters in Nogales, Sonora. His wife Stefanie Tanenhaus, 30, and Jacksubeli González, 31, of Nogales, Sonora, run the digital storytelling curriculum, which involves creating personal narrative-based videos. The students, 23 in Arizona and 45 in Sonora, learn about each other by sharing their videos and occasionally meeting in person.


Wearing a blue Superman T-shirt, program participant Alejandro Garcia, a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School, diligently practiced bouncing a ball on his racket as he participated in the tennis lesson offered by Cutler and volunteers from the Nogales High School tennis teams. He said tennis is his favorite part of BYTE, but he likes making videos, too.

“I like to edit (them) because you get to switch the colors and everything,” he said.

Danica Silva, a third-grader at Lincoln, said since she began playing tennis, she’s been able to concentrate better in the classroom. One of her favorite parts of BYTE, she said, is when they get to watch videos made by the youth in Nogales, Sonora, who she feels are her friends even though they haven’t met.

“We get to see how they look, we get to see how they’re creativity is,” Silva said, adding that the only difference between them is their language.

The video project the students are developing with Tanenhaus and González centers around a biographical poem, with each step of the process meticulously outlined on a piece of cardboard.

After writing the poem, students illustrate it with drawings and sculptures made of colorful clay and pipe cleaners. Then, they take photos and videos of the artwork, which they will later edit into a video set to a soundtrack of them reading their poem.

Marilu Portillo, a seventh-grade student at Wade Carpenter Middle School, said digital storytelling lets her express herself.

“We get to give our opinions and say what we like,” she said.

“I am an achiever and a believer/I wonder why the ocean is so large,” Portilo began her poem, which later delves into her love of winter and goal of becoming a doctor. “I dream about saving lives/I hope that one day I will make a change,” she read.

To illustrate her poem, Portilo drew a doctor and picture of herself snuggling under a warm comforter in the winter. While she already knows how to take photos, she said, she’s excited to learn new media skills.

“I’m looking forward to learning how to make a video or slideshow because it looks cool when everything’s together and then you can tell a story,” she said.

Show of unity

González, who has worked with many youth and nonprofit groups in Nogales, Sonora, said the international and storytelling aspects of BYTE make it a unique program. She said combining learning with tennis is also special, especially in Nogales, Sonora, where the sport is not very popular.

González said the Mexican youth – many of whom have never crossed the border – often wonder about their counterparts, and watching videos produced in Nogales, Arizona shows them how similar they all are.

“They’re different countries but they already know that they’re kids and they like the same stuff,” she said.

In a time of such political divisiveness, Cutler said, it’s important for not just the youth, but for the greater public to know that Ambos Nogales is still united.

“It’s important for the world to see that these kids are the same and that a kid in Arizona and a kid in Mexico look pretty similar playing tennis,” he said.

“They’re both struggling,” he added with a laugh.  

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