SOUTH ABINGTON TWP. — High fives and fist bumps. Approving smiles. Words of encouragement.
This is the atmosphere young athletes experience when they participate in Buddy Up Tennis at Birchwood Tennis and Fitness Club.
Coordinated with Geisinger Health System, the program is an ongoing, high-energy adaptive tennis and fitness clinic for children and young adults with Down syndrome.
Founded in 2008 in Columbus, Ohio, the non-profit incorporation now holds weekly 90-minute clinics throughout the United States. Birchwood became the first Northeastern Pennsylvania location to host the program, when it started its first session at the beginning of April.
According to Michele Reese, coordinator, the organization hopes to soon expand into Luzerne County as well.
Reese, who is also a mother of one of the participating athletes, described the atmosphere as “very positive.”
“The athletes almost immediately have a relationship with their buddies,” she said. “And I think it’s wonderful what they are doing.”
When he or she enters the program, each athlete is paired up with a volunteer, who serves as his or her “buddy” during the clinic, providing the constant one-on-one attention coaches aren’t always able to give in a group setting.
Reese’s 10-year-old daughter Olivia confirmed every part of the program is fun – from “throwing the ball” to “swinging the racket.” When asked if she likes her buddy, Isabel Hou, she gave an enthusiastic “yes!”
Hou, a Clarks Summit resident, has been playing tennis at Birchwood for about three years now. She said she enjoys volunteering in the new Buddy Up Tennis program.
“These kids don’t normally get to play tennis, so it’s great that they can come play tennis, socialize with their friends and learn,” she said. “And they really enjoy it.”
According to coordinator Dr. Murugu Manickam, clinical geneticist at Geisinger Health System’s Genomic Medicine Institute Precision Health Center, Buddy Up Tennis can benefit the athletes in similar ways to physical therapy.
“But because they are thinking about it like that (having fun and learning a new sport), it doesn’t seem like a chore,” he said.
The program also helps bring out the best in each athlete and improve his or her social skills.
Manickam said one of his favorite success stories from Buddy Up Tennis comes from Ohio, where a young boy with both Down syndrome and autism went from refusing to hold a racket at the beginning of his session, to playing the full game, through several small steps and a lot of patience from the boy’s family members, coaches and buddies.
He said stories like that are not unusual.
Manickam added he is grateful for the volunteer buddies at Birchwood who strive to build trust relationships with their athletes, and for Coach Bill Steege, co-owner of the club, for hosting the program.
“Everybody here was so enthusiastic about doing it,” he said.
Reese said as a mother, to her, the program means everything.
“My daughter fully enjoys this,” she said. “She looks forward to coming every week – and this is coming from a girl who has never played tennis before.”
No experience is required to participate in the program, and each athlete is provided with a T-shirt and racket.
The cost is $15 per single day or $115 for the entire spring session, which will run through June 11, followed by a summer break. A new session will then begin in September.
For more information about the local program, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Buddy Up Tennis, Inc., visit buddyuptennis.com.