When Beth Gibson took her son Keegan to tennis lessons at Wickertree Fitness Club, her younger son Will tagged along.
Gibson noticed how fascinated 3-year-old Will was while watching his older brother hit the ball with Doug DiRosario, one of the employees at Wickertree. Will’s interest prompted Gibson and DiRosario to figure out how to teach adaptive tennis to Will, who has Down syndrome, but they encountered a problem.
“We researched on the internet how we could make tennis adaptive for those with Down syndrome, but we found nothing, so we took it in our hands to do something about that,” said DiRosario, 40, of Lewis Center.
The realization prompted Beth and two Wickertree employees, DiRosario and Stephanie Anderson, to create their own tennis program: Buddy Up Tennis. DiRosario and Anderson tested out the idea with Will hitting balloons and bubbles to see how he responded to them, which helped DiRosario and Gibson come up with strategies to add to the program.
Gibson, 51, of New Albany, and DiRosario launched their first Buddy Up Tennis clinic in December 2008, and the clinic became the answer to Gibson’s search for a program that helped kids like Will stay active. After high school, Gibson said, there are not many ongoing fitness programs offered specifically for those with Down syndrome.
Eleven years later, the program has become a full-time commitment for Gibson, albeit an unpaid one.Buddy Up Tennis, now a registered nonprofit, has expanded to 22 locations across the country, including seven in Ohio. Each location has a coach leading the program while athletes are partnered with a “buddy” who helps encourage and engage the athlete. Athletes attend weekly 90-minute clinics to do 30 minutes of fitness and 60 minutes of tennis. Nationwide, Buddy Up serves more than 550 athletes and has around 750 buddies volunteering.
Taylor Ruby, 22, of Hilliard, has volunteered as a buddy for seven years. She says Buddy Up has helped her become a better person.
“Through this I have learned the value of giving and loving constantly in life,” Ruby said. “There’s no other fulfilling feeling like that in a cause like this.”
At Wickertree, athletes range in age from 5 to 40. Parents can choose to pay $40 a month for three sessions or $15 for a single session. Scholarships are available. Equipment, team shirts and court rentals are paid for through fundraising and donations from individuals and corporate partners.
Candace Kane, community relations director for Buddy Up, nominated Gibson for Everyday Heroes because of her dedication and how she goes out of her way to help so many people in the community.
“She started this for her son and could’ve stopped there, but she had a vision to not only help her child, but others’ children, too,” Kane said.
The organization has also done demonstrations at the Arnold SportsWorld Kids & Teens Expo in Columbus and attended the U.S. Open in September 2018, where the group played on the center court at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City.
Gibson did not expect a program created for her son to blossom into something bigger that would reach and benefit more athletes, but she is thankful.
“This is so much more than tennis,” she said. “This helps them learn life skills that they can take outside the building into the real world.”
Will Gibson, now 14, still enjoys tennis and is grateful for everything he has gained from playing tennis with his mom by his side.
“It is fun, mostly since my mom is here court-to-court helping out,” he said.
Joan Magnacca, 57, said the program brings a feeling of inclusion and purpose for her 18-year-old daughter, Maria, who has improved in interactions with friends and in physical ability thanks to the program.
“I’m really thankful there is something like this for our children,” said Magnacca, a Gahanna resident.