All it takes is one persistent parent to make a difference — not only in their own child’s life, but also in the lives of many others. Tennis Buddies, an amazing adaptive program for adults with Down syndrome, was a simple idea that took off with support from the tennis community. USTA/Midwest Tennis & Education Foundation is proud to be part of that support.
Michelle Newbold, a member of the Evergreen Racquet Club and Tennis Fitness Center in Bloomington, Illinois, had arranged private tennis lessons at the club for her adult daughter Kristi, who has Down syndrome. Michelle was talking with her friend and the club’s then-new manager, Colleen Curran, about how impactful programs for children or teens with Down syndrome seem to dry up as these individuals grow into adulthood.
With Colleen’s support, Michelle spearheaded a partnership with the Central Illinois Down Syndrome Association in 2014 to offer a weekly clinic that draws a dozen or so adult athletes to the club. In an innovative approach, the club even set up a special membership for them.
Participants’ range of abilities is huge, Colleen says. Some individuals are physically limited and can’t run, for example. Others have become good players who hold their own with non-disabled players. But regardless of skill level, they share a willingness to work hard.
“Our pro is an experienced high school coach, and he did not limit his expectations. I was amazed at how fast they progressed that first year,” Colleen said.
Observers often think the clinic participants are young, but most are in their 30s and older, and their enthusiasm is contagious.
“They all bring us joy every Thursday afternoon. In fact, yesterday a member stopped in when they were organizing in the lobby and said it brightened her day,” Colleen said.
USTA/MTEF gave Tennis Buddies a $3,500 grant in 2017, reflecting the Foundation’s expanded mission to support adaptive programs for select adult populations in addition to our ongoing dedication to youth. For Tennis Buddies, the funds support essentials like court time, teaching professionals, adaptive equipment, and the athletes especially love having their own polo shirts to wear on the court.
From the weekly clinic, Tennis Buddies expanded as a USTA organization to include the unified tennis component of Special Olympics, which pairs one individual with a disability and one non-disabled player. Twice a month, Varsity Girls’ Tennis players from all five local high schools volunteer for the program. In addition to helping others, they’ve also formed friendships outside of their competitions that strengthen the area’s tennis community.
The high school athletes and Down syndrome athletes are mutually supportive. Colleen observes that the program has given some of the non-disabled players a new perspective on frustrations with their own game.
“They have great conversations and kind of take care of each other,” Colleen said.
Fitness is one obvious benefit to the athletes. “But their parents and caregivers say it goes way beyond that,” Colleen says. “The social aspects are good for them. The way tennis works with the brain on planning, anticipation, and strategy has really improved their overall abilities in other areas of their lives.
It affects non-disabled athletes the same, but those are skills we take for granted; this population has to work at them.
”Even such details as making their own arrangements to get to the club, or taking the bus on their own, are skills that transfer to other activities.
But what keeps participant Payten Presley coming back is common to non-disabled and individual players with disabilities alike: “I like playing tennis because it is fun, and it’s great exercise,” he says with a big smile on his face.
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