Tennis Chapter for Athletes with Down Syndrome Arrives in St. Louis
Washington University in St. Louis students Avinash Murty and Jonathan Song learned about a 501c3 nonprofit organization named Buddy Up for Life during a trip to Green Bay. The duo loved the organization’s mission — serving individuals with Down syndrome via fitness-oriented classes, namely tennis — and wanted to get involved.
So they did - in a big, big way. Murty and Song started the Buddy Up for Life Club at WashU and recruited classmates to join Buddy Up Connections, a friendship program partnering volunteers — or buddies — with the athletes who have Down syndrome.
Murty and Song proceeded to raise funds to fly in a team of three Buddy Up for Life leaders — including Founder and Executive Director Beth Gibson — who provided hands-on training to coaches and volunteers. All the behind-the-scenes efforts culminated in the launching of a Buddy Up Tennis chapter in St. Louis on September 29.
“It’s pretty special college students stepped up and really want to make a difference in this world,” Gibson said. “They did all of the boots-on-the-ground work by partnering with the local Down syndrome association. Then we partnered with Frontenac Racquet Club. It’s just a really great community. It was one of our strongest openings because we had such a presence of volunteers in the tennis community and the WashU students.”
Gibson noted registration for athletes had to be cut off due to how well sign-ups went. She and the WashU contingent are hoping to secure expanded court time in 2022 as a result. Gibson said Frontenac Racquet Club owner Terry Ward has been a tremendous host. In addition to Murty and Song, Volunteer Chapter Coordinator Milena McGhee and Lead Chapter Tennis Coach Shannon Ward have been instrumental in the local chapter’s development.
When the St. Louis Buddy Up Tennis chapter opened on September 29, it did so as the 25th such chapter in the country. More than 30 WashU students worked with athletes from the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis. In all, 40 buddies were paired with 25 athletes as six coaches led the charge.
“What I’m so proud of is we have an amazing team,” Gibson said. “It’s so important to have that local leadership. Our local team in St. Louis — they’re incredible. They’re the ones who are running it day in and day out. They’re carrying out our vision. It’s great to have a partnership. And knowing there are so many good people in this world who want to provide an environment for our athletes to reach their fullest potential is what’s so great.”
Buddy Up Tennis started with one athlete, one buddy and one coach in 2008. Gibson’s older son, Keegan, was learning how to play tennis from coach Doug DiRosario. DiRosario also wanted to teach Gibson’s younger son, Will, who has Down syndrome and was 3 ½ years old at the time.
The Gibsons and DiRosario quickly realized there was a gap in available programming and educational tools for coaches to teach tennis to individuals with Down syndrome. They decided to host a tennis event. From that, they determined parents needed an ongoing program for their children with Down syndrome, who are sometimes excluded or can’t keep up with their peers. Buddy Up Tennis — which has since evolved into Buddy Up for Life — was born.
The program partners athletes to buddies 1 to 1, and individuals partake in a 90-minute weekly session. Half an hour of fitness is followed by an hour of tennis. Buddy Up for Life has grown exponentially, with the organization boasting the 25 tennis chapters, six fitness chapters and a life-skills program in Columbus, Ohio, the nonprofit’s headquarters. More than 650 athletes, 750 buddies and 100 coaches participate in 30 cities across America.
“We’ve created an environment for our athletes to learn and grow,” Gibson said. “They’re building friendships. They’re gaining confidence. Those skills are life-changing. You’re feeling good and have a lot of positive energy. You go onto the next place — perhaps then you have confidence to get a job, do well in school, try a new sport or something different. It’s a ripple effect. What’s happening on tennis courts is what’s rippling into their lives outside.”
Buddy Up for Life services individuals with Down syndrome ages 5 and older, as the youngest participant is 5 and the oldest is 55. While the athletes are busy with fitness and tennis — which Gibson labeled the “sport of a lifetime” — parents connect with other parents often working through the same challenges and triumphs as them.
“That’s the first time during the week they can be with somebody who gets it and knows exactly what they’re going through,” Gibson said. “They can laugh a lot, cry a lot and use each other for resources, networking and problem solving. It’s a real big extended family.”
Gibson said coaches love how hard the athletes work and their perseverance. It’s typically the athlete’s idea to join the program and continue coming back each week. Buddies are impacted in a major way, too.
“What’s fun to see is our buddies are inspired by our athletes,” Gibson said. “They’re finding new passion. We have many volunteers come to us who may be doing service hours. They stay with the organization, and their life is changed. They’re starting to find direction and their purpose in this world. Perhaps they want to go into education, occupational therapy or physical therapy. Or wanting to work with children for their careers.”
Individuals interested in volunteering — which Gibson said there is always a need for — can do so by visiting the Buddy Up for Life website. Volunteers don’t need tennis experience to be a buddy. The organization provides racquets, fitness equipment and T-shirts, so donations are appreciated as well. For additional opportunities or to have questions answered, Gibson can be reached via email at Beth@buforlife.org
“There is such a great need for our athletes,” Gibson said. “That’s why we continue to keep providing additional programming. We have a really high retention rate. What’s so special is our athletes stay. Our program stays. Communities must believe in our program because they ask for more. We provide additional fitness. We’ve provided summer camps. There’s so much opportunity out there. There’s so much more to be done.”