In February, Tennis Thanks the Troops began a weekly Wounded Veterans Adaptive Tennis Clinic at East Potomac Tennis Center in Washington, DC. I was chosen to help run the clinic, with the help of instructors and therapists from the Veterans Affairs Hospital in DC. The vision was to give back to wounded veterans by offering them a fun way to stay active and socialize, while advancing their rehabilitation.
Every Friday veterans, instructors, volunteers, and therapists meet for 60 to 90 minutes to work on everything from basic skills tennis to playing one-on-one matches. The veterans represent all branches of the Armed Forces, having deployed in numerous wars, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
But I have come to realize that the most impressive thing about each one is their spirit and enthusiasm for life. Take Charles for example – he recently celebrated his 60th birthday and in the past month has been on a cruise to the Bahamas, and has taken a trip to Portugal. We talked about all of the amazing things he saw and the importance of doing things while you still have the time and health. Life is unpredictable, and you never know when you will get another chance. His words encouraged me to plan a trip to Montreal this summer!
Then there is Kenneth. Ken has caught the tennis bug – watching every tournament on TV that he can, and buying a fancy new racquet for practice. We gush about our love for Federer. Recently Ken and several of the clinic participants traveled to Mississippi to compete in the National Veterans Golden Age Games. When he returned to our clinic, he spoke with admiration about fellow Veterans that he met and competed against. He was amazed at how people missing arms or legs competed in every single event, and he spoke about his desire to begin a campaign to get better training facilities in Washington, DC for wounded Veterans who compete in athletics.
What struck me about Ken is that I have always thought about helping Veterans from one angle – a citizen or organization initiating a campaign or volunteering their time. But he, as a Veteran himself, is determined to take up the cross to improve the lives of his fellow soldiers. Rather than wait for help, Ken is chasing it down and demanding it.
The heart of the adaptive clinic is our instructor Brenda Gilmore. Brenda was paralyzed in a car accident in her 20s, and now dedicates her life to teaching tennis to those with disabilities, particularly children. She is PTR Adaptive Tennis Certified, USPTA wheelchair certified and was the 2015 PTR Maryland Member of the Year. Brenda’s energy and natural chemistry with the clinic participants is undoubtedly the reason we show up every week. She can make each lesson fun, while not letting anyone off the hook for laziness or bad technique.
And the benefits of tennis extend beyond the physical. Brenda often gives homework for the Veterans to practice, forcing them to remember their lessons from week to week, and to replicate what they have learned. It sounds easy enough, but it is not. The remarkable improvement I have witnessed with each clinic participant since February is proof that her instruction is not only effective, but met with enthusiasm.
As someone who spent every week from age five to eighteen playing sports, I know that more often than not the memories and lessons learned from sports have less to do with the actual games themselves, and more to do with the people you participate with. The Tennis Thanks the Troops Wounded Veterans Adaptive Tennis Clinic advertises as a sport that will help with rehabilitation and exercise. What it doesn’t say is how much more you will leave with each week – new friends, new perspectives and a new appreciation for others’ differences and experiences.
The clinic is absolutely the highlight of my week, and only being three months into the program, I can’t wait to see what I continue to learn along the way!
Tennis Thanks the Troops is an initiative of the USPTA and ThanksUSA to raise money through tennis events in support of ThanksUSA’s mission of providing need-based, post-secondary scholarships for children and spouses of military personnel. Since 2006, ThanksUSA has awarded nearly 4,000 scholarships for a total of $12 million. Scholarships are awarded to students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, representing all branches of the armed services, including the National Guard and Reserve.
Stefanie Bannon is the Events and PR Coordinator for ThanksUSA.