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They’re serving a need, with aplomb

Volunteers teach tennis to blind

By Marvin Pave
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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WATERTOWN — The racket handles are shorter. The net is smaller, in length and height. The foam ball, stuffed with a ping pong ball filled with metal pellets, jingles in flight and upon contact.

The court is marked by raised red tape and string so that the players can feel their way around the floor while listening for the ring that signals the ball is headed their way.

Gathered inside the Howe Building gymnasium last week, playing tennis for the first time, seven students from the Perkins School for the Blind were receiving instruction from volunteers from Newton North High School.

“If someone asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, it’s a challenge for me to find out,’’ said Ashley Bernard, an 18-year student at Perkins who resides in Scituate. “And if someone gives me a task like hitting a tennis ball, I’m going to figure that out, too, and I love that challenge.

“It really has given me confidence and it proves that people with disabilities can do whatever they set out to do. If I wake up tomorrow and someone says, ‘Let’s play tennis,’ I’ll figure out a way to do it.’’

Bernard took great delight in putting her racket on the ball, bounced in front of her by Newton North sophomore Sejal Vallabh, a varsity player who founded Tennis SERVES.

Last fall, Vallabh approached Perkins officials about starting what is believed to be the only group tennis instruction given at a school for the blind in the United States.

Vallabh, whose mother grew up in Tokyo, was visiting her grandmother in Japan last summer. While there, she worked as an intern at Hands on Tokyo, which collaborates with the Japanese Blind Tennis Federation to teach the sport to people with visual impairments. She learned the fundamentals, and returned home with a vision of sharing her knowledge with her classmates to teach blind students.

“As soon as I got back to the States in August, I contacted the Perkins School and gave a presentation to the superintendent and physical education staff,’’ said Vallabh, who plays first doubles at Newton North. “We got approval to start in January with one gym class a week and expanded to an after-school program in March.’’

Vallabh developed a weekly curriculum and website and began instruction with four other Newton North tennis players: Danielle Handler, Ilana Greenstein, Kayla Shore, and Kris Labovitch. Greenstein coordinates the volunteers and Shore handles publicity.

Through last Monday’s final tennis class of the semester, the volunteer group had expanded to 14 members, including Needham High tennis player Jodi Grosberg.

Perkins School president Steve Rothstein keeps an audible tennis ball used by the Tennis SERVES program on his desk to show visitors what his students can accomplish.

“Seeing them practice was exciting for me,’’ said Rothstein. “It has been an opportunity for them to gain confidence and to grow as individuals. I’ve seen their competitive spirit emerge and we’re thrilled to have this partnership with Sejal, who is a remarkable young woman.’’

Although the Perkins School provides some of the equipment, Vallabh approached her coach at the Longfellow Club in Wayland, tennis director Phil Parrish, who arranged with the Babolat equipment company to donate the nets. The balls were special ordered from the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky.

Matt LaCortiglia, an Upton resident and coordinator of Perkins’ Adapted Physical Education program, said that tennis has been beneficial to the Perkins students in learning the basic athletic stance and moving forward, backward, and laterally.

“And the interaction of our students and the volunteers who are approximately the same age has been impressive,’’ he said. “I know it’s a first for us at Perkins in my 14 years here and while our physical education classes include a team sport specifically designed for the blind called Goalball, our students are now learning the basics of a mainstream sport usually played by sighted individuals.’’

Last week’s hourly session included footwork drills that emphasized low stance, bent knees and making sure that the players’ feet did not cross. That was followed by practicing the forehand as each instructor bounced the ball to the player while gradually increasing the distance between them.

Students and volunteers then played a mock game using vocal cues that included explanations of how games are scored. The session ended with students trying their hand at doubles.

Perkins physical education teacher Mary Clark said the Newton North-Perkins collaboration has “gone beyond our expectations. Our students have met so many challenges — coordinating the sound of the ball with their swing, first learning about the ball itself as it was rolled to them so they could locate it, then progressing from having someone help hold their racket to holding it themselves.

“For blind individuals, some of whom have never seen floors, walls, or ceilings, it has taken a special understanding of what a tennis court is and what to do on it and that is what makes this program special,’’ added Clark, whose students also participate in yoga, walks around the Watertown High track, and exercise at the Waltham YMCA to develop lifetime fitness skills.

Addie Chase McCann, a 20-year-old student from Scituate who has partial vision, has advanced to the point where she can bounce the ball — up and down — on her Prince racket.

“I have pretty good eye-hand coordination and I’ve learned more every week,’’ she said. “But returning the ball and getting it over the net has been my biggest accomplishment. I wish I had more time to get to know the Newton students, but I have a busy schedule. I enjoy talking to them about the music we like.’’

Vallabh will return to Japan this summer where she will enhance her teaching skills with the Japanese Blind Tennis Federation in Saitama and the Kinki Blind Tennis Association in Kobe.

“I’d like to start similar programs with schools for the blind in this country and share lesson plans and teaching videos with them and I’ve already started contacting them,’’ she said, “and I’m really hoping that I can find student leaders and regional coordinators in other states.’’

Vallabh said there are tentative plans to continue the program at the Perkins summer camp and definite plans to return to the Howe gym in the fall. She is also trying to make Tennis SERVES a nonprofit organization to help raise funds for equipment.

Her ultimate goal is to see tennis for the blind introduced as a sport at the Paralympic Games.

“I have learned so much from this experience,’’ she said, “and to see the joy they get out of the simple things we try to teach them has made it all worthwhile.’’

For information about the program or volunteering opportunities, visit www.tennisserves.org.

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.

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