Aug. 7—A new era started in April at First Serve New Mexico, the after-school tutoring and tennis program that for 20 years has inspired some 1,500 Santa Fe youths.
Its founder, president and executive director all those years, Eleanor Brenner, died at age 89, just as her 20-year dream to have a permanent home for First Serve started to take shape.
Grading started in January and foundation work in June on the 9-acre First Serve and Forked Lightning Racquet Club campus between the Genoveva Chavez Community Center and Rodeo de Santa Fe and behind the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds.
“This is going to be the dream Eleanor had and it will manifest soon,” First Serve board president Angelique Crook-Lowry said at the Aug. 1 groundbreaking. “This is a most exciting day that we have been patiently waiting for.”
In September, First Serve leaders thought they would be pouring concrete for the tennis courts in November and potentially be ready to bring students in by early 2024. Slower-than-expected permitting through Santa Fe County means no concrete has been poured, foundation work is in early stages and students now aren’t expected likely until early 2025, said Kimberley Sheffield, who with her husband, Scott, are funding the $13 million project.
“We had things lined up and ready to go repeatedly,” Sheffield said.
First Serve/Forked Lightning will have 12 acrylic-based hardcourt Plexicushion tennis courts, at least 10 pickle ball courts, two padel tennis courts, three classrooms for third to 12th grade students, and a locker room and gym for the private tennis club members.
Six of the tennis courts and two of the pickle ball courts will be inside an inflatable dome provided by Yeadon Domes of Minneapolis. First Serve youth and Forked Lightning members will overlap on the tennis court — and likely interact.
This is part of the new era at First Serve: increasing the mentorship of adult leaders with the students seeking academic and life skills guidance at First Serve.
The three classrooms with a combined 3,000 square feet will house student tutoring but also group events, especially guest speakers for the youths.
Bringing in local role models, business leaders and elders with life skills is part of the evolution of First Service. It is also the central focus of the post-Brenner era and concurrently building a permanent home.
“[In earlier years], kids would have trouble with homework,” said Chris Slakey, First Serve’s program director. “They had 1 1/2 to three hours of homework. Now they have 30 minutes of homework and get it done in class. We’re needing to supplement that.”
The First Serve team is using this interim period to shape its future, bolstering its life skills program and evaluating the eight schools where First Serve has operated for many years with students from 22 schools.
First Serve will continue to use the five public tennis courts and keep its programs in place at larger schools, but students at smaller schools may be consolidated at the new campus, Slakey said.
“The one reason we do this is to change the lives of children,” Crook-Lowry said. “We are learning more and more what it takes to change their lives. What do kids need now? It’s a different world.”
First Serve New Mexico owns the property, a gift from Texas oil magnate Scott and Kimberley Sheffield, who live in Santa Fe and Dallas.
The Sheffields met Brenner in January 2019 after Kimberley in 2018 met First Serve head tennis coach Nancy Keeran, saw First Serve youth in action on the tennis courts and on the spot wrote a $5,000 check.
“It’s Eleanor,” Kimberley Sheffield said in response to why they committed to First Serve. “She just talked to us about First Serve. She didn’t ask us [for money]. When we got home, we said, ‘Why don’t we help her?’ “
Scott Sheffield is a founder and CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources, the largest oil producer in Texas, according to the state’s Railroad Commission.
“The older you are, the more you want to give,” Kimberley Sheffield said. “Starting Jan. 1, we’re all-in in New Mexico.”
The Sheffields and their son and daughter-in-law, Bryan and Sharoll Sheffield, will also match $2.5 million for a $5 million First Serve endowment to fund operation of the campus. Fundraising will start soon for the other $2.5 million. Bryan Sheffield founded Parsley Energy in 2008, which was absorbed into Pioneer in 2020. Forbes deemed him a billionaire in 2016, although Bryan Sheffield currently is not on the list of Texas billionaires.
Scott and Kimberley Sheffield are intrigued by the potential for First Serve and Forked Lighting, with them managing the latter with T.J. Middleton serving as executive director of the tennis club.
“It’s just limited by our imagination,” Kimberley Sheffield said. “When Eleanor and I first talked, it was just a few courts and a classroom.”
About a year ago, the dream had grown to 12 tennis courts — the most among Santa Fe tennis clubs — and four pickle ball courts. Since the start of this year, pickle ball has expanded to 10 courts, and two padel tennis courts were added, as was a small administrative building for First Serve.
Before the pandemic, Brenner received an initial $6 million estimated cost to build a tennis center from the U.S. Tennis Association. The Sheffields initially offered a $3 million match, but the pandemic stifled fundraising and the Sheffields stepped up for the full $6 million. They continued to fully fund the project as it grew to $12 million and now $13 million.
“We always believed Santa Fe needed a first-class tennis center,” Scott Sheffield said last year. “We wanted a first-class tennis center.”
Brenner since the start used tennis as a hook to attract youth to after-school tutoring and building life skills. But First Serve believes tennis itself is a tool in building character, life skills and improving academic performance.
Vladmer King, a veteran tennis coach with 17 years at First Serve, had a one-word answer for the most important thing a student can take away from First Serve: “Listening.
“If you don’t listen, you don’t learn,” he said. “If you don’t listen, you can’t become friends with other people. If you’re not listening, you don’t know if the ball is in or out or what the score is. If you’re not listening, you might miss your match.”
Melissa Pineda and her 10-year-old son, Caleb Pineda-Sena, have taken part in First Serve for 11/2 years.
“I am learning social skills,” Caleb said.
“I wanted him to develop some sort of skills,” Pineda said. “He showed an interest in tennis. I have been impressed by the program. It’s really helped him build his confidence.”
Brenner’s death restructured leadership at First Serve. In her last days, Brenner anointed board vice president Crook-Lowry as the first president. Karissa Martinez oversees day-to-day management as executive coordinator.
“We want to expose children to new ideas and activities,” Martinez said. “This is a free program. We currently have refugees in our program. We are showing them different ways of life. Ultimately, we want a program that can be adaptable to have the most impact on students.”