“It’s that moment when a kid who couldn’t even catch a ball hits one over the net,” says Trish Spagnol, a volunteer with Tennis 4 Kids.
Karen Wright is leading the group into its third session of indoor tennis lessons at the community centre. “We use the pickle ball nets which are lower, and better for the kids,” she says. Children between the ages of five and 10 learn co-ordination skills, and how to catch and throw a ball; they learn the basic of a ground stroke, and ultimately how to rally with forehand and backhand strokes.
“They also learn competition, skill development, co-ordination, and good social things,” says Wright.
A recently retired elementary school teacher, Wright was with the District School Board of Niagara for 30 years. “I missed being with kids,” she says. “I need to be with kids.”
Then the 58-year-old Niagara Falls native moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and heard that Rosemary Goodwin was offering free tennis lessons at the public courts in Rye Park. She decided to give them a whirl. “I hadn’t played tennis since a couple of times in my teens,” she says—and this time around she found herself smitten with the sport. So much so that she now plays as many as a dozen games in a week, and is working toward certification as an instructor. “Tennis is something you can play your entire life,” says the recent convert.
Tennis 4 Kids meets weekly in the gym at the community centre; the third session will be starting in January and will run for seven or eight weeks, depending on the availability of the space.
“Tennis is a tough thing. You’ve got racquets flying—it’s pretty crazy,” says Wright, referring to the levels of both co-ordination and patience required. The hour-long lessons are divided into two age categories (five to seven, and eight to 10), and grouped in basic skill levels. Volunteers at a ratio of one to four help the kids toss cottony balls and catch them, control foam balls with their hands and racquets, and work up to actual rallies over the net. The pace is quick and the children are focused and excited.
Goodwin, Wright’s former instructor, is also an important factor in Tennis 4 Kids, volunteering her time as a teacher, and also supplying all the racquets and balls and any other equipment necessary — other than the nets, which are supplied by the community centre. “Dan has been just wonderful,” says Wright of the centre’s helpful co-ordinator.
The program has been so well received in the community that Wright is working to take it into the schools through the DSBN. A pilot project at St. Davids public school went well, and is leading to sessions in the gyms of other local schools. “People think this is a seniors’ community, but look at all these kids,” says Wright. “There must be a thousand of them in Niagara-on-the-Lake.” And Wright would have every last one of them wielding a racquet.
A session with Tennis 4 Kids is $50 per child. This January, students who learned to rally in the most recent session have the opportunity to spend time at Vineland Tennis Academy playing in the tennis bubble and receiving two hours of free instruction from professional coaches. Wright describes children with eyes wide with delight at the idea.
To maintain its growing success, the group needs a few more volunteers — “people who have some knowledge of tennis, and a comfort level with kids,” says Wright. She provides a lesson plan for each session. High school students can use this toward their community hours. More information regarding volunteering or participating as a student can be obtained by emailing Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.