Eat. Sleep. Tennis. by AJ Song

  Ever since I was 12 years old, I grew up holding a tennis racquet and wearing my tennis shoes all the time. I pretty much grew up with a racquet and tennis ball in my hand. Rather than spending time at the beaches like many of my friends, my summer vacations were spent on the tennis courts in the scorching hot sun. I spent more hours training every day on the tennis court than I can count on my ten fingers, and probably more hours than I spent sleeping each night. To me, practicing my repeated groundstrokes and serves until perfection wasn’t a chore; I saw each practice as an opportunity to improve, and seeing my improvement truly excited me. I would feel butterflies in my stomach while checking the tournament draws every ten minutes to see my next opponent, and during my matches I would compete with one goal on my mind: to win the next point. With all this said, my passion for tennis is obvious.

     This same passion for tennis eventually led me to discover my passion for helping others, which started with my experience volunteering at a local wheelchair tennis tournament. The sense of personal fulfillment I gained from helping these people was the reason for me to keep coming back year after year.  My passion to help these people to play tennis continued to grow with each new activity, and this sense of fulfillment soon became addicting to me. Later on that same year, I decided to try something new, and I found myself volunteering at an ACEing Autism clinic. Having never really interacted with children with Autism in the past, many uncertainties lingered in my mind at first, as I was unsure how to act or communicate with these children. My inquisitive mind was filled with so many questions, from “How can I communicate with this student” to “What is another activity we can do together?” However, with time I eventually grew more comfortable working with these Autistic children, and I remember leaving my first clinic eager to find more ways to continue exploring my passion for helping these children. This led me to open up the first branch of ACEing Autism in my high school and hometown of Yorba Linda during the beginning of my freshman year, the first branch in Orange County. Working with these children and teaching them tennis have served as the bridge to connect my passion for the game of tennis with my deep passion for helping others. My experiences with bringing ACEing Autism to my local community has allowed me to escape my routine Yorba Linda life and to experience new things to benefit others. After my first session at the Yorba Linda Branch, I felt so thankful to help four amazing children learn this amazing sport of tennis. Afterwards, I felt overwhelmed by the smiles of the children we had taught and the amount of gratitude I received from the parents that was far beyond what I expected. I was inundated with emails and telephone calls from parents expressing to me that their children had a wonderful time. The most commonly asked question was, “When is tennis again?”   The kids’ enjoyment in playing tennis, and the regular feedback comments from parents truly motivated me to continue running these clinics over and over again.

     I will never forget John, one of my first students who I was given the opportunity to work with. I will never forget the conversations we shared and the amount of improvement I saw over the course of several ACEing Autism sessions. It is a joy to be able to see John continue to come out to each session with a huge, excited grin on his face. Seeing children like John improve not only in their volley forms and groundstroke swings, but also in their social and fine motor skills serve as the fuel that keeps these sessions running. In retrospect, I realize that there are no awards or trophies for the time I dedicate to helping these children with autism to play tennis.  The amount of personal satisfaction that I receive from helping these children is far beyond any material or monetary reward I would get in life. Seeing the children that I work with improve in tennis and the Yorba Linda branch continue to grow is much more rewarding to me than any personal achievements I have had in my past tennis or academic endeavors. Working with John has taught me so much about myself as well. Through these sessions, I have been able to explore my own sense of creativity, as I have learned that every autistic child is different, depending on where the child is on the various levels of the autistic spectrum or what their response is to what I say or do. Many of my experiences in coaching these children have been through trial and error, and I have been able to embrace each mistake and learn to become a better coach and better person. Through ACEing Autism, I realized that helping a mere few children may not change the world, but dedicating time to help even one child could mean a world of a difference for him or her.   

     Ultimately, I have learned so much from my experiences working with ACEing Autism, from improving my leadership skills to forming new relationships with volunteers and children. I am grateful for the opportunity to help these children, and for all the support I receive from so many volunteers and parents, who are often so eager and enthusiastic to support me in many valuable ways. In the future, I hope to continue to see even more children light up while learning this wonderful game of tennis, and to help develop within them the same level of passion for the game that I have.