As a founding member of the Special Pops Tennis Progam, Vicki Bennett firmly believes the game of tennis should be played and its many benefits enjoyed by everyone, regardless of ability.
By Martha Pedrick, special to USTAFoundation.com
Just playing tennis was never enough for Vicki Bennett. For the past 19 years, sharing the game and its life lessons with individuals with special needs has been her mission. Vicki firmly believes the game of tennis should be played and its many benefits enjoyed by everyone, regardless of ability. Her years of volunteer experience prove her right!
In the mid-90s, she led an all-volunteer adaptive tennis program for special needs students in the Gwinnett County (GA) schools that quickly spread to neighboring counties. It culminated each year in Racquet Rally Day, where Vicki brought together teaching professionals and 300 middle and high school students from all over metro Atlanta over two days for drills, games, lunch and awards.
When personal circumstances required Vicki to go back to work, she became an employment specialist, training and placing people with cognitive disabilities in jobs. In that capacity, she witnessed first-hand the isolation they experience when, no longer students, they become home-bound adults and lose all connection with their community. Vicki quickly realized that tennis was a great solution to the isolation problem and that the game’s life lessons could also enhance their employment experience. To that end, she added a tennis component to the “Next Stop” program in Gwinnett County for special needs young adults who are transitioning from school to the work environment.
Still determined to make an even greater difference, in 2005 Vicki became a founding member of the metro Atlanta-based Special Pops Tennis Program (SPT), a grass roots volunteer program whose mission is to enrich the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through tennis. Under the thoughtful guidance of Vicki and a small group of like-minded individuals, Special Pops Tennis began with 60 athletes and a handful of volunteers at three training sites. Since then, SPT has served over 700 athletes with an equal number of volunteers at 15 sites in 8 counties.
Through Vicki’s tireless hands-on efforts for the past nine years as Program Coordinator, Unified Partner, certified Special Olympics Tennis Coach, volunteer trainer, fundraiser and Board member, these special athletes are learning to play tennis every week on the tennis courts in public parks and private clubs across Atlanta. They play weekly doubles matches in the USTA-sanctioned adaptive tennis Special Pops Unified Doubles (“SPUD”) league with traditional tennis players as partners. They compete at the tournament level in singles and doubles at the annual Special Pops Fall Classic adaptive tennis tournament, the largest match play adaptive tennis tournament in the nation, and at tournaments in five other states. They attend dances, spend the night away from home, and eat out at tennis-related social events.
More importantly, they are reaping the very real benefits of playing a lifetime sport: trading the couch for a tennis court and trading the TV for meaningful on- and off-court interaction with their peers, coaches and mentors. Little by little, Vicki Bennett is turning isolation into inclusion. That’s a win for the game and everyone who plays it!