BRANDON — What began as a service project more than 13 years ago for a Jesuit High School student has blossomed into a weekly tennis program for special needs athletes of all ages.
Nathan Moore realized no tennis programs existed for special needs athletes in the Brandon area. So in the fall of 2000, he organized "Tennis for Fun," a free tennis clinic.
Moore found the athletes, some from a local Challenger baseball and soccer program that he had coached for special needs athletes. He then recruited volunteers and got tennis rackets donated.
After the first year, Nathan moved away to St. Louis to attend college. Nathan's mother, Judy, a former special-education teacher with Hillsborough County schools, took over the program and runs it today.
"It's been great," Judy Moore said. "It encourages these young adults to be the best that they can be. They reward me. I am happy seeing them happy."
The program welcomes all ages and focuses on players who are intellectually handicapped, especially those with Down syndrome.
Currently, the athletes range in age from 5 to 55.
While the program fosters confidence and skills, it also provides an atmosphere for socialization.
"Once they graduate from high school, they don't get to see each other anymore," Judy said. "Most of them really look forward to this all week."
Some of the athletes even go on to compete in tennis at the Special Olympics.
The hourlong clinics begin each November on Friday afternoons and then switch to Thursday afternoons after the first two months. The Thursday clinics began last week and continue through April.
All clinics are held at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center.
Organizers added a second Tampa location of Tennis for Fun at Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus, and it continues to be run by Jesuit High School volunteers each year.
Judy Moore also helped establish Tennis for Fun clinics in Belfast, Maine, and Camden, Maine, during the summer. She volunteers at the Belfast location as well.
Tennis for Fun is run entirely by volunteers. Over the years many parents and students have volunteered, but Moore relies on a core group including Rosanna Chiaramonte, her co-director, Betty Cory, Dave and Janie Kennet, Barbara Kessler, Marge Cedilnik, Rick Tarr, Ivo Cantrell and Eric Papp.
Papp, who attended Jesuit High School with Nathan, later attended the University of Notre Dame and then moved back to the area and continues to volunteer.
"It goes way beyond the game of tennis for both myself and the athletes," Papp said. "The athletes are a great reminder to me of what life is about — experience and relationships. For them it is a chance to use their muscles, have social interaction and to be referred to as an athlete."
Nancy Grow, the Tennis for Fun team mom, sums up many of the volunteers feelings:
"You just don't want to be anywhere else on a Thursday afternoon."
In 2000, a core group of 11 student athletes started attending Tennis for Fun — and that core group still attends the clinics each week. The program now has approximately 81 athletes.
There are approximately 12 volunteers for each clinic, but the program is always looking for more, especially for the 3 p.m. time slot, when high school volunteers are not yet out of school to help.
Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center donates four clay courts for the five hours needed for the clinics each week. Director Chuck Burgess and associate executive director Lori Bukaweski presented the athletes with new T-shirts last year.
"This program fits our mission of impacting families and individuals," Chuck Burgess said. "It also fits well with the TRIDENT (Training and Recreation for the Intellectually Disabled Enchancing Their Natural Talents) program we offer at our facility."
Some of the Tennis for Fun athletes are enrolled in BSAC's Trident program. Trident is an adult day and after-school program for adults with special needs. It teaches them life, social and physical skills and engages and empowers them.
"It is nice to see our mission in action and see it tangibly," Burgess said. "We will continue to embrace programs like Tennis for Fun as long as the community continues to support these great programs."