SAN FRANCISCO, CA, USA - WTA alum Peanut Louie Harper learned the value of being in the right place at the right time - both on and off the tennis court. Now as the co-founder of a rapidly growing children’s charity, she wants to give the next generation the tools they need to redefine their own success.
The former WTA Top 20 player sat down with wtatennis.com to reflect on the path that led her from the top of the tennis world to launching Harper for Kids, a nonprofit organization that works to bring character development tools for children in elementary and middle schools based on the philosophy of famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
“You know, I had only played tennis my whole life,” Harper said, speaking via phone interview. “So just being able to learn something from ground zero, from scratch, and being able to educate myself to bring all of this to the kids and inspire them, was so rewarding. [My husband] Tim and I dove into it and learned along the way.
“It was like a huge learning curve, but I’m really happy to be able to learn so much about the nonprofit world and still be learning a lot... It just keeps growing and growing.”
Born in 1960, Harper grew up the youngest of five siblings - hence the nickname “Peanut” - playing on the public tennis courts of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. As her older siblings went on to become top ranked juniors and college standouts and oldest sister Marcie turned pro on the brand new WTA tour, Harper knew tennis was in her future, too.
“It was great just going to watch my sister play at the pro tournament that was here, [the Virginia Slims of San Francisco] at the Civic Center,” Harper recalled. “You’d see Kerry Melville, Nancy Richey, Billie Jean [King], Rosie [Casals], you know, all these legends...
“I was just a young kid getting to see all these big stars: Chris Evert, Marita Redondo, my sister Marcie.”
Harper herself turned pro in 1978, when the WTA tour was only five years old. During her 16-year career, Harper climbed as high as No.19 in the world and took home four career titles, recording victories over the likes of Gabriela Sabatini, Zina Garrison, Mary Joe Fernandez, Helena Sukova and Andrea Jaeger along the way.
Even after marrying husband Tim Harper and retiring in 1994 to start a family, Harper stayed connected to the sport. And it was at her local tennis club that Harper’s path took another turn.
“It was one of those things where I happened just to be in the right place at the right time,” Harper said. “A friend of ours [Steve Jamison] at the tennis club where we belonged had co-authored a book with Coach Wooden and he gave it to us to read.
“I didn’t really know who Coach Wooden was or followed college basketball, but when I read it I just fell in love with his philosophy. And being a parent of young kids, was just like, Oh my god, I’m totally going to use this! As a parent, I’m going to use this maxim: ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’
“I just always felt like if my parents could write a book, it would have the same values and life lessons.”
The former World No.19 particularly identified with Wooden’s philosophy on success: "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming."
“How can you find a better, more positive definition of success?” Harper said. “At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask, did you do your best? And that peace of mind, it’s such a luxury to have.”
Harper, then a new mom, was inspired to collaborate with Coach Wooden and Jamison, translating Wooden’s ‘Pyramid of Success’ into “Inch and Miles: The Journey To Success”, a children's book for parents and kids published in 2003.
Inch and Miles turned out to be an unexpected hit among teachers, who used it to empower their young students with character-development skills, and bringing the book’s lessons to schools across California soon became the goal of Harper For Kids. Founded in 2008, the organization quickly went from presenting the book to a handful of schools to building up a network of more than 70 schools and presenting to more than 75,000 K-12 students to date.
“It kind of became just a mission, how to introduce it to as many parents and kids as possible,” she explained. “That was really the drive to start Harper for Kids.”
Part of the organization’s character-building mission involves bringing positive role models to school assemblies for the kids to learn from - including top athletes and Harper’s fellow WTA players, both active and retired. Although the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic meant California schools have been closed since March, Harper for Kids’ work has thrived on Zoom, a popular video chat service.
"Two years ago we were thinking, it’s hard for us to physically be at all of these schools that we want to be at and do assemblies,” Harper said. “And we always like to bring in some special guests, great role models to talk to the kids about good character and how they achieved success in their lives.
“We kind of got lucky learning Zoom a couple of years ago, so fast forward to now it’s just like, Oh my gosh… it’s actually like working out great for us!”
She added, “Also it’s just so much easier to ask our guests, a lot of them are Olympic champions or top pro WTA players or any top athletes, ‘Do you have 30 minutes to do a Zoom and inspire kids?’ It makes it a whole lot easier to say 'yes' than when you ask them to give up three hours of their time during a tournament to get to a school.”
In partnership with WTA Charities, players like Madison Keys, Victoria Azarenka, Vania King and CiCi Bellis, as well as Legends including Tracy Austin, Zina Garrison, Mary Carillo Kathy Rinaldi, Mary Pierce, and more have taken part in the video calls, chatting with teachers and grade school students about success, life skills and the importance of building good character.
As Harper for Kids continues to grow, Harper hopes to continue introducing more people to Coach Wooden’s philosophy - including her fellow WTA players whom she hopes can learn to reframe success and failure in a “positive, productive way”.
“Even if it just helps one player just deal with the ups and downs of being a pro athlete and the pressures that come with it, that would be just as exciting as how it helps the kids,” Harper said. “So hopefully, this continues to grow and grow.”
Click here to visit harperforkids.org and learn more about Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. Follow the WTA 4 Love campaign to learn more about how the tennis community is coming together during the COVID-19 pandemic.