Beth Gibson played tennis on her high school team but then took a long break that lasted until she retired from a retail career to focus on raising her two sons. When she took up the sport again in 2008 she wanted to introduce tennis to Keegan, currently a Miami University freshman, and Will, now 11 years old.
She quickly discovered that teaching clinics for children with Down syndrome like Will simply didn’t exist — so Beth started one. She and co-founder Doug DiRosario partnered with their local Down Syndrome Association in Columbus, Ohio for a “one-time” clinic that attracted 12 participants.
When her athletes told Beth they wanted to keep playing, she immersed herself in what little research she could find. She carefully observed Will as he participated in other activities to gauge his responses to different teaching methods. Then she used the information to modify 10-and-under concepts to create her own curriculum and develop such adaptations as additional court markers and highly visual scorecards.
“People at the club would see what I was doing and ask, “Can I give you money?” Beth recalls. Buddy Up Tennis was incorporated in 2010 and today Beth is the president of a Columbus-based nonprofit that runs structured clinics across nine states. A grant from the USTA/Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation helped fund the September 2016 launch of its 16th location in Naperville, Illinois.
Consistency is key, Beth says: “What we learn in Columbus, we share with different locations. We provide an environment where our athletes can excel, where they can learn and they can grow. We set the bar high and provide the steps to get there.”
A Buddy Up Tennis volunteer partners with each athlete during 90-minute sessions that begin with 30 minutes of conditioning. Athletes can progress through seven levels of tennis skills. They learn to listen, follow directions and take turns — all skills that translate well to school and other activities. “Just basic fundamentals that we take for granted can be hard in the special-needs world,” Beth explains.
A child must be 5 years old to enroll in Buddy Up Tennis, but the organization has no upper age limit. “Tennis is a sport for a lifetime, right?” Beth says.
Take Will, for example. He’s competitive by nature and holds his own; the program has given him that confidence, according to Beth. But if the day comes when he doesn’t make his middle-school team, he’ll still have Buddy Up Tennis. And when Will — the original impetus for this growing organization — accompanies his mom to openings and volunteer training, “he realizes he’s giving back, and we love that piece of it,” says Beth.