Neto's Tucson: Handball offers life lessons for foundation-mentored youth

2013-07-07T00:00:00Z Neto's Tucson: Handball offers life lessons for foundation-mentored youthErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The echo of the small, hard rubber ball bounces off the walls on the courts at Reid Park.

It is the sound of life for Benette Valdillez and other young people who gather several times a week to practice the game of handball.

For the players, some as young as 10, this is not just a game of striking the rebounding ball. With its hours of practice and occasional competitive events, the game gives players a foundation on which to build strong and successful futures.

"It changed my entire life," said Valdillez, a 24-year-old graduate of Pueblo Magnet High School who will begin studying social work at the Tucson campus of Arizona State University in August.

That is the kind of reaction Fred Lewis has heard for years.

Lewis is a Tucson handball guru, a winner of multiple national titles. He's also an accountant, but his passion is to motivate young people through handball.

"It mirrors life," said the 65-year-old Lewis, an inductee of the United States Handball Association Hall of Fame who, on July 17, will be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel.

In 1997, Lewis and John Henning co-founded the Yes-2-Kids Foundation. The two used the sport to mentor youngsters and young adults to achieve their goals. The foundation also raised money for scholarships for the young handball players.

The foundation eventually dissolved, and earlier this year the Fred Lewis Foundation for Youth Handball was born. Lewis and a small band of handball brothers who came up through Yes-2-Kids meet with program participants three times a week at Reid Park.

Last Wednesday night, about a dozen kids practiced, exercised, talked and laughed.

"You almost live with them," said coach Luis Estrella, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona, who joined the program in its infancy when he attended Pueblo Gardens Elementary School.

Through sportsmanship, Estrella said, students reach their potential with discipline, practice, mutual respect, fun and camaraderie.

Valdillez began playing handball about five years ago and last year placed second in a collegiate tournament. She said the experience has helped her focus on what's important.

"The energy around here is positive," she said.

The coaches, she said, guide players not just to hit rebounding balls but to rebound when life hits them back.

One of those coaches is Ricardo Estrella, a 23-year-old Pima Community College student.

Estrella, who is known as Richie and is a cousin to Luis, started playing handball when he was about 11 years old. He soon found out he was good at it.

But when he entered Tucson High Magnet School, he stopped playing. The lure of hanging out with his South Tucson street buddies was stronger.

When he stopped playing, he also stopped the forward progress in his young life. He nearly flunked out of school and lost his way.

After a year, he rejoined his handball group. His grades and attitude rebounded and he graduated from high school.

"It wasn't worth it," he said of his yearlong absence from the handball program. "I found out the hard way."

He shares his experiences, from the game and from the street, with younger players. And on his road of self-discovery, he has found his calling. He wants to be a teacher.

Not necessarily to teach others how to strike rebounding balls and score points, but to teach them how to handle life's rebounding jolts and swat them away to win at life.

"We keep them healthy and happy," Lewis said, "for the rest of their lives."

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at

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