It’s 8:00 AM on a Saturday; I put on my blue program director shirt and head out to my high school’s tennis courts. By 9:00, all the volunteers and students arrive. The class begins with light aerobic exercises and conditioning. Although this may seem like an ordinary tennis camp, it is a non-profit organization that teaches muscle movement and social development to children with autism and other disabilities.
I wanted to use my abilities as a tennis player and my experience in leadership to make a direct impact on someone’s life. In the summer after my sophomore year in high school, I learned about a nation-wide organization called ACEing Autism and decided to start a local branch using my high school’s tennis courts. Although my school, like many others, has a special educations program with its own curriculum and teachers, there didn’t seem to be any athletic program specifically tailored for children with cognitive disabilities.
My first task was to both find dedicated volunteers passionate about helping others and parents dedicated to their children’s social growth. When the CEO of ACEing Autism called to check on my progress he asked, “So, how many students have you gotten so far?” I said, feeling discouraged, that I had about two. So I started handing out flyers to all the elementary and middle schools in my area and gave a couple presentations to some teachers in my own high school. During the launch of my program I was not sure how many families would turn up. But by the first class, I had over fifteen families show up, eager to sign up their kids.
Having done numerous weeks of this program, I have learned that the success of my program does not depend on the number of students I am able to teach but the impact I make on their lives. One of the parents came up to me at the end of the class one day said that every morning her son swings his imaginary racket and asks if there is “tennis ball?” today. Its comments like these that motivate me to continue doing this program.
Every time I am out on the courts I learn something new. Whether it is how to get a dozen energetic children to properly hold a racket or how to get my volunteers to learn to interact with the children, it is always a learning experience. I later learned that it’s not just the students that I influenced.
Besides impacting the lives of others, it has greatly impacted my own; I not only have increased my leadership skills but also greatly increased my ability to be patient and connect with others. I feel honored to have been able to change a little aspect of their lives, and I hope to pass this program down to future leaders so that they can feel the same way I did.