WATCH: Live to Give, Episode 2


For 17-year-old Gavin Vander Schaaf, tennis has been both a gift and tool for empowerment.

At the age of 5, he was diagnosed with a brain malformation called Chiari malformation coupled with basilar invagination. Parts of his brain extended into his spine causing him to experience aggressive headaches, brainstem compression and disc bulges. These unwavering symptoms led him to his first brain surgery.

“I’ve dealt with chronic pain ever since I can remember,” he said. “I don't think I’d be here without the help of others.”

On morning in the second grade, Gavin woke up unable to stand, due to the many variables compromising his health and immune system. He began to use a wheelchair, but didn't allow himself to be dependent on it—he wanted to stand and push through the pain.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Vander Schaaf turned to tennis to cope. After seeing a flyer from a local tennis club about a kids clinic, he first picked up a racquet at the age of 12. From there, his relationship with the game grew.

“I fell in love with the sport immediately,” he said. “I had a lot of times where I would be bed ridden for a week just for playing tennis for an hour, but I developed such a passion for the sport that it just inspired me to keep pushing through whatever pain I had.”

Gavin now utilizes the sport as a platform to give back through the non-profit organization, Second Serve.

Second Serve is a youth-run nonprofit working towards improving the lives of underprivileged children who love the game of tennis. The organization redistributes tennis equipment to underserved communities around the world while also empowering youth with a platform to serve.

“It’s probably one of the best steps I could ever take in my life,” Vander Schaaf said. “We’re helping so many people. It fulfills me so much to know that I’m paying forward the kindness that I once received. I can't imagine where I would be if I wasn't helping people.”

In 2020, Gavin received USTA Eastern's first ever Junior Courage Award for his efforts and resilience. In sharing his personal story, he has goals to impact others' lives.

“If there's any pain or strife or adversity that you're going through, the way that I cope with it is accepting it and then turning it outward,” Vander Schaaf said. “Putting it towards helping people, and using it as a source of fuel.”

“I know what I've gone through and I know what other people could be going through, so to take a load off anybody else would be my dream.”