By Ashley Marshall, USTA Foundation
Youngsters of all ages hit the tennis courts on Wednesday morning as part of the second ACEing Autism clinic on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.
The clinic saw children ages 4 to 18 take part in a series of group warmups, obstacle courses, hitting drills and mini games. At the end of the program, the youngsters took photos with mascots and giant props and were presented with medals. With 50 children and volunteers taking part across two age groups, the clinic was the largest single-day event the charity has hosted.
The USTA Foundation, the charitable arm of the United States Tennis Association, has awarded ACEing Autism three grants totaling $37,000 over the past few years. Last year, the Foundation named ACEing Autism their adaptive tennis program of the year.
“To have ACEing Autism as part of the US Open is fantastic, it’s so exciting,” said ACEing Autism chief marketing officer Alex Huggan. “It’s a really great fit, a lovely relationship that we’re proud to be part of.
“We feel that tennis is one of the best sports therapies for kids with autism, so this is the best job in the world. I think the great thing about the USTA Foundation supporting us is that the money gets directly into the tennis and directly to the kids. The USTA Foundation is so important to ACEing Autism for many reasons because we share a mission to bring tennis to everyone.”
ACEing Autism is a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 by Richard Spurling and wife Dr. Shafali Jeste in Boston as a family-run organization. The program began with 15 children and currently serves more than 500 youngsters with autism across 30 locations nationwide.
In 2013, Spurling was honored with the United States Professional Tennis Registry’s humanitarian of year award for his work building this program. Last August, ACEing Autism was given the USTA’s community service award.
“The kids develop a bond with the volunteers, helpers and other kids,” Spurling said. “We realized there was a huge need for recreational opportunities for kids with autism, and tennis helps get them on the court with other kids while helping with their cognitive development.”
Susan Belfer of New Jersey brought her 7-year-old son David to the inaugural ACEing Autism clinic in 2014 and said the program has helped her son develop a number of skills that benefit him in his everyday life.
“It’s wonderful. He really can’t do team sports, but I grew up playing tennis and I’ve always loved tennis, so I’m happy he has a passion for it, too,” said Belfer, who heard about the clinic through an Autism Speaks outreach program on social media.
“He’s gained so much confidence through tennis and being able to play a sport without feeling inadequate. His hand-eye coordination helps him with his daily physical tasks and he has inspired me throughout the year. This is a life sport that he can continue as he grows with it.”
New York native David Brunswick Sr. brings 6-year-old son David Jr. to Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day each year. He said David is a huge sports fan and enjoys playing with other children.
“A program is only as good as the people who run the program, and the volunteers at ACEing Autism understand autism and they understand children with autism,” Brunswick Sr. said. “It’s huge for the kids. We constantly keep up with different programs in the city and we brought him out to enjoy himself and have a good time. It’s important to develop social skills and he gets to run and jump and play and have fun.”