Football player turned astronaut in for Israel Open

Attendance meant to honor memory of Ilan Ramon; on Thursday Melvin will be in Jaffa visiting the "Sky is the Limit" ITC coexistence project.

ilan ramon 248.88 (photo credit: NASA)
ilan ramon 248.88
(photo credit: NASA)
NASA and the NFL are not known to share resources, but in the case of Leland Melvin they have certainly benefited from a common member. After playing for the Detroit Lions in 1986, Melvin began his path towards the outer orbits as a researcher at NASA, eventually becoming a member of the STS-122 Atlantis Shuttle mission to the International Space Station this February. "[Being an astronaut] has been the best thing that I could have ever done in my life, not just flying in space, but making a connection with others. It is a way that I teach through both sports and space, and just talking to kids," Melvin told The Jerusalem Post in Herzliya this week. Melvin's dedication to education through sports has brought him all the way to Israel to promote the Israel Tennis Center's first annual Israel Open in memory of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. The tournament began Monday, with the final scheduled for July 12. "Sports in general taught me discipline and leadership, it also taught me the importance of followership. Everyone can try to be a leader but it takes leadership and followership to be on a team. The wins and the losses are all part of the education, too," Melvin said, flashing a humble smile. The ITC is the largest children's tennis program in the world, seeking to promote social, psychological, and physical development of children in a multicultural environment. Established in 1976, the ITC has 14 centers throughout the county, located mainly in disadvantaged neighborhoods, providing programs ranging from courses for special needs children to competitive tracks for gifted players. "The ITC has reached children from all walks of life, it doesn't matter their background. We embrace them all because we want to give every child the opportunity to reach their full potential," Janine Strauss, CEO of the ITC, said. "Therefore Leland will be visiting children with special needs." While in Israel Melvin has and will be participating in a wide range of activities including a meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and another with Ilan Ramon's wife. On Thursday Melvin will be in Jaffa visiting the "Sky is the Limit" ITC coexistence project, a program designed to promote bonds between the various ethnic communities in Israel. "We hope that when they do graduate they will remember some of the experiences when they were with us. They will remember that they threw rackets and not rockets, tennis balls and not stones. The experience in itself exposes children to a cross-cultural dialogue," explained Strauss. "But it doesn't happen overnight. All of these programs of coexistence we have a psychological services that act as our backup. The psychologists also work with sibling and parents of the children in the program." "There are four things that are universal and need no translation: music, mathematics, sports, and love. When you get kids on the court, they play," Melvin added. Melvin will also visit the Sderot and Ashkelon Tennis Centers on Thursday to meet with Ethiopian children, in cities repeatedly hit by rocket fire from Gaza. "It is very important to remember that life is tough and things happen that are very difficult," said Melvin. "But no matter what happens in our lives we have to keep moving forward, we have to keep inspiring kids to do their best, no matter what circumstances they come from. It is about your heart, dedication, and spirit." On Thursday the ITC will host a gala evening to benefit the center's competitions, players, and programs. Around 460 guests are expected to attend the festival, including Israeli tennis stars Andy Ram, Yoni Erlich, Harel Levy, and of course Melvin himself. "We are very honored and very happy to have Leland, an astronaut with a very particular agenda to educate children and act as a role model. So a child that listens to him can be inspired and realize that the sky really isn't the limit," said Strauss. "Everyone is a role model, it's just whether you are a good one or a bad one, because the children are always watching and they see everything. It's your daily walk, whether you are flying in space or driving down the street. I think it's very important to realize the impact we have on children," said Melvin. "The children are our future so you have to really watch what you do."