Q&A with Shannon Lewes and Neely Zervakis, Program Directors at Williamsburg, VA:

Shannon Lewes: Sophomore at Virginia Wesley University

Neely Zervakis: Associate Director at McCormack-Nagelsen Tennis Center

How did you hear about ACEing Autism?

Shannon: In 2017 Donald Widner started the program here and both him and Neely were both my coaches. Donald handed me the wristband and told me to be there. I was in 10th grade and I have an uncle with special needs so I said yes. ACEing autism got me out of my comfort zone, I loved it from the first day. I got close to Neely by being her assistant for the red ball program here at Mccormack and eventually Coach Widener moved on to another facility and Neely took over the program. I eventually asked Neely to be my mentor (she speaks as she starts being emotional) and we started to talk about goals for the club and ACEing Autism.

Neely: When Coach Widener left, I knew we were supposed to continue but knew I couldn’t do it alone and I trusted that she would be amazing. I knew it would be done right and I have a lot of ideas but she can make them happen. We try to come up with new ways to keep these things involved

What made you want to keep coming back?

Shannon: The community, not just the players, the coaches. We have people from all walks of life. Definitely the kids. Most of the kids have been in the program since we started. It’s really special to see how they grow on the tennis courts and personality. One of our students Jordan, used to run around the club and now he is in the advanced court.

Neely: Seeing them progress is so rewarding, the relationships in the community. We always try to find new or better ways to do things. How can we challenge ourselves to improve this program, improve this experience for everybody?

What are some new things you’ve been working on?

Shannon: Instead of trying to do all the strokes in one day, we split it up. This past week, it was coming to the net. We tried theme clinics for example coming to the net with approach shots. Next week, we’ll do groundstrokes and after that point play

Neely: When we did our 5-day camp we divided each stroke per day and we did progression. Working with one stroke and progress through it, just like a regular tennis player does when he takes tennis lessons. We learned that they don’t need to be advanced to understand advanced concepts. We want to make sure we are never limiting what they can do, and there is always progression or regression so we can always adapt. You never know what you will be missing out on by trying the harder things so that’s what we’ve seen and it works. 

We’ve added other themes, if we do forehands we’ll teach the mental side of it with being focus for the mental side. We did backhand and bravery, serves and sportsmanship, volleys and balance. So we’re building the physical and mental sides too. 

Shannon: Something Neely has emphasized is learning the score so for example you make one volley you get 15.

Neely: We also try to have other activities for example where they sign a towel so they have their friends sign it so they can remember. An activity that they enjoy adn that brings them together. They have to interact socially. Incorporating activities that are fun and where they socialize. 

Have you volunteered anywhere else?

Neely: I volunteered for Special Olympics but ACEing Autism has taken over for me. We both volunteer for Compassion International. We both have a sponsor child where we write letters and have a relationship with them. It gives them money for food and a safe place to go to church, clean water for example.

Shannon: At school I’m with the Student Athlete Committee. Seeing my friends volunteer for ACEing Autism has been so amazing and seeing how they click. We are very intentional with who we pair them with so it’s very exciting to see how some people just click. People really come out of their shell, I know that because that’s what ACEing Autism did for me, it made me come out of my shy bubble and seeing it happen with other people has been very special.

Neely: We’ve also been extra careful this time with pairing because, for example, we have someone who is suffering and seeing them smiling it doubles the joy because it takes them outside of their problems. Another woman from our club found out her grandchild has autism so I thought this would be perfect for her because she also felt she doesn’t know anything about autism so how can I help my grandchild if I have no idea. So she’s been so excited to have the opportunity to learn about it.