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Let's Buddy Up

Featured Photo from Let's Buddy Up

The Buddy Up Tennis program based at Red Bug Lake Park in Casselberry gives players with Down syndrome the chance to make friends and have fun, but the volunteers who run it get so much more.

During Buddy Up Tennis season in the fall and spring at Red Bug Lake Park in Casselberry, athletes spend 90 minutes on Saturday mornings cheerfully participating in tennis drills and working on a variety of skills to help them become better players. But, unlike most of the tennis players who participate in league or recreational play at Red Bug, the victories in Buddy Up Tennis have nothing to do with winning games, sets, or matches.

These athletes all have Down syndrome, and the joy they experience in Buddy Up Tennis is immeasurable. They don’t have to hit a winning backhand or ace their opponents to feel the thrill of victory.

“Besides learning tennis, they get to learn social skills and make friends and have fun,” says Janet Caramello, CEO of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida (DSACF). “There are so many components to this program because of the way it is set up for the athletes.”

All Buddy Up participants (known as athletes) are paired with volunteer buddies who provide one-on-one attention, encouragement, and help with tennis and social skills. Specially trained tennis coaches take care of the instructional element, which includes a half-hour of physical therapy skills such as jumping, hopping, agility training, catching, and throwing.

“The athletes do things specifically designed to help build skills for playing tennis,” Janet says. “Then they spend time learning tennis skills, and the session ends with a few minutes of actual game play.”

Buddy Up Tennis was launched at Red Bug in January 2017, and the sessions usually attract between 12 and 25 players ages five to 30. Each season has 10 sessions, and the athletes can sign up for one session or all 10. Trial sessions are free, but there is a small fee for the others. DSACF scholarships are available to offset the cost for families who need them.

Nationally, there are more than 25 Buddy Up Tennis programs, and Red Bug is one of four locations in Florida. Beth Gibson, whose son Will has Down syndrome, started the program in Ohio in 2008. She would take Will with her to the local tennis center, where Beth played with her older son, and Will was fascinated by the sport. Staff members volunteered to teach Will how to play tennis, and that was how Beth got the idea for the Buddy Up program.

Winter Springs lawyer Lori Loftis, who has two tennis-playing children, was responsible for bringing Buddy Up Tennis to Seminole County. Back in 2016, she saw an online ad for volunteers to help with a Buddy Up Tennis demonstration during the National Down Syndrome Congress Annual Convention, which was being held in Orlando.

The ad caught Lori’s attention because, in addition to her children’s interest in tennis, she has a nephew with Down syndrome. Also, as a lawyer for the State of Florida, part of Lori’s job is to represent adults with Down syndrome in their guardian advocate proceedings.

Both of Lori’s children, son Connor (now at Florida State University) and daughter Katie (who will be a senior at Winter Springs High this fall), were high-school students at the time, both were tennis players, and both were interested in community service. That, combined with Lori’s experience with people with Down syndrome, made Buddy Up Tennis seem like a perfect fit for their family.

“We went down there [to the resort where the convention was being held], and we loved it,” Lori says of the Buddy Up Tennis demonstration. “My kids said, ‘Let’s try to bring this to Orlando!’ We were all interested in getting the program started here.”

Lori made connections with Beth, the Buddy Up founder, and was put in contact with Janet at the DSACF. Lori and her kids worked hard with the staff at Red Bug Lake Park to get the Buddy Up Tennis program rolling, and after that first season, it was named Best New Program in the Country.

In addition to Connor and Katie, who was captain of the tennis team and class president at Winter Springs High this past school year, Buddy Up Tennis has attracted many volunteers from other local high schools. The students sometimes sign up to fulfill their Bright Futures volunteer hour requirements, but they gain so much more from the experience of working with the athletes.

“It’s something we look forward to every week,” Lori says. “Every week, we’re seeing so much positive energy and the athletes progressing with their tennis skills and the buddies giving high-fives. It’s a great social experience and physical activity for the athletes and their buddies. It’s really something special.”

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