Video by Rusty Ellis / Sports Editor and Cody Strickler / Sports Reporter
Although the Blue Raider tennis seasons are over, there’s still a group in Murfreesboro using the sport to make a difference in the community.
Buddy Up Tennis is a program for kids and young adults with Down Syndrome that focuses on giving their athletes a fun and productive way to exercise their bodies. Beginning in 2008, the administrators of the program conduct 90-minute, weekly clinics that are focused on teaching the participants all about the game of tennis.
For Murfreesboro program coordinator Ronda Hawkins, bringing Buddy Up to the Middle Tennessee area was a way to combine both her passion for tennis and teaching others.
“I play tennis, I’m a recreational player. I’ve helped one of my coaches do lessons for some (children) a few years ago,” Hawkins said. “We just kept thinking ‘perhaps this is something we should bring to Murfreesboro.’ I called (Executive Director) Beth Gibson and she thought that it was wonderful, so now we are one of 17 locations (nationwide).”
Hawkins first saw the program in action when she and her husband went to the 2014 Western Southern, the tennis tournament right before the storied U.S. Open.
“Beth Gibson, who started it, had about 50 athletes on all the courts and they were doing a mini-session, showing everyone what they do with Buddy Up Tennis,” Hawkins said. “Donald and I took a flyer. We came home and prayed about it… I felt like the Lord said ‘go for it.'”
Besides tennis, one of Hawkins’ biggest goals was to create an environment that helps the athletes with socialization skills. The best example of that is the relationship the kids and young adults have built with not just the coaches and volunteers, but also each other.
“The buddy-athlete pairings are to bring friendships and relationships (together)… that’s part of it. I want those relationships to be built from buddy-to-athlete and athlete-to-athlete,” Hawkins said. “It’s been really beautiful to see those friendships develop.”
When all is said and done, Hawkins wants to do everything she can to bring all of her athletes to the highest level possible, as well as bring as much awareness to Down Syndrome as she can.
“I know in Ohio, they have some kids that can play at the Special Olympics level and can rally like a typical tennis player could. They can play fantastic,” Hawkins said. “I want to have fun and keep them engaged, but for the kids that are able and have the ability… I want to bring them to highest level they can play and I want more people to have programs that are adaptive programs for special needs.”
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