Learning to play tennis just became a little easier for a group of special children in the Rockland County, NY, area. BuddyBall Sports (BBS) inaugurated its first season of tennis lessons, joining soccer and basketball, for children with developmental disabilities like autism.
With almost a one-to-one ratio of volunteers (the “buddies”) to students, what makes this community recreational program unique is that the buddies are peers, not adults. Kids volunteer with other kids, along with adult instructors, to help make learning tennis easier.
“Week to week it was such a wonderful opportunity,” said volunteer Gail Marx, USTA League Tennis Coordinator. “It was incredible to see their progress and how far they advanced with hand-eye coordination, judgment and perspective, and agility.”
BuddyBall Sports is dedicated to including children with developmental disabilities in organized sports leagues. The volunteer buddy helps the participant by assisting with learning, accompanying on the tennis court, retrieving errant balls, demonstrating how to hold the racquet, and cheering for accomplishments. USTA Chief Information Officer Larry Bonfante initiated the tennis component of BBS after realizing kids might want to learn to play more than soccer and basketball.
He went on to recruit on-court instructors from USTA co-workers and others, ranging from high-level tennis coaches to administrative assistants, who shared the common thread of wanting to see tennis open to all those interested in playing.
“These kids want an opportunity to learn sports and have fun like all kids do,” Bonfante said. “There are limited recreational opportunities for them to participate in, and BuddyBall Sports provides them a social outlet to get some exercise, learn to play sports, and have some fun.”
“Every person has their own unique abilities and potential, and it is very rewarding to watch these special kids work hard to learn and develop skills that most of us take for granted.” Bonfante speaks from personal experience, as his youngest daughter Christine is one of the players who participated in the program.
The fundamental operating principle of BuddyBall Tennis is to provide a flexible participative sports environment where children can interact, learn tennis, and most of all, enjoy themselves. From May-June 2004, Bonfante organized six weeks of on-court lessons and drills designed to introduce the game and build basic skills. He worked with BBS executive director Bill Schule to secure use of courts in Orangeburg, NY. From six to eight children with developmental disabilities ages 10-14 participated weekly, along with an equal number of volunteer buddies and 3 or 4 adult volunteers.
Former USTA Special Populations committee chair Janet Lefkowitz, who works with HERO (Help Expand Recreational Opportunities) in Westchester County, NY, helped train the adult volunteers for working with children with special needs. Members of the USTA Community Tennis division donated racquets and tennis balls to the effort.
After six weeks of jubilation and frustration, and a little bit of sunburn, the BuddyBall participants are a little closer to being part of the sport. Bonfante is already thinking ahead to the fall schedule. And a new generation of tennis fans and players has been born.
Do you know of a notable volunteer doing something in the world of tennis? Email Andrew Feldman with a short description of how your volunteer helps promote and develop the game of tennis. If you have a picture, send it along.
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