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Avila raises a racket to help children

Avila, one of Hillsborough's most noted communities, conjures up visions of spectacular houses, perfectly manicured lawns and towering oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Some, however, see a different picture. They associate Avila, where a security guard is always on duty at the gate, with an air of elite detachment.

Elite detachment?

It's my fancy way of saying hoity-toity.

Avila resident Mark Nouss has heard the connotation before but wants you to know that his neighborhood does have a heart. In fact, it will hold the 18th annual Avila Charity Tennis Tournament this weekend, hoping to meet or surpass the $80,000 mark for the fourth consecutive year.

It's a fun event for the neighbors, many of whom participate. Although the caliber of tennis rates high, with eight professionals involved in play, Nouss said irreverence permeates the overall atmosphere.

"Heckling is sort of encouraged," joked Nouss, the event chairman.

Residents don't joke about the effort that goes into staging the tournament or the sense of community motivating their efforts. The tournament started in the 1990s, but it really took off six years ago when neighbors took a more active role in the planning.

The transition to a completely community-run tournament began with residents choosing the charity. It had to be local and it had to be a nonprofit that benefits children and makes a big impact. Past recipients include the Tampa Marine Institute and Joshua House.

"It's a heart-wrenching process because the money involved is significant to a lot of people," Nouss said. "Everything is worthy out there. When you talk about kids, there's rarely a charity that doesn't rip your heartstrings out when you hear their story."

For the next two years, Mary Lee's House serves as the beneficiary. The one-stop, state-of-the-art child protection and advocacy center in West Tampa allows children who need to be assessed to be treated under one roof in a friendly environment.

Space is shared by different agencies such as the Child Protection Team and the Children's Advocacy Center, as well as law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, but it's designed with children in mind.

Avila residents behind the tournament made an emotional visit to the center, which serves 300 children a month.

"I think they were shocked at how prevalent child abuse is in our area, because it is a much more frequent occurrence than any of us would ever imagine," said Nouss, who is on the board of directors.

"There was some real appreciation for the groups that are assembled over there."

One community member assembled a team to help stock the facility's clothes closet for abused children. Such heartfelt gestures have not gone unnoticed. Nor has the hard work involved in putting together the tournament.

"It's heartwarming to watch people like this work this hard," said the center's executive director, Lisa Colen. "Their motivation is so sincere it's almost overwhelming. If you look at what they've done to prepare for this event, I haven't seen anything like it."

Even in a difficult economy, the time and effort have added up to some impressive numbers. It has raised more than $370,000 for charities over the past five years, including $260,000 in the past three.

"I just don't know of another charity, not run by a corporate entity or charity, raising that kind of money," Nouss said. "We're just a group of knuckleheads sitting around and saying let's try to do something nice for somebody."

To learn more about Mary Lee's House or to make a donation, go to maryleeshouse.org.

That's all I'm saying.

Avila raises a racket to help children 03/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:47pm]

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