Three years ago, Ellie Carmody was looking for an enjoyable way to fulfill her school’s required service hours. As an avid tennis player, she was drawn to Omaha Tennis Buddies, a tennis program for disabled athletes. Founded in 2005, the program provides a year-round supplement to the tennis opportunities available through Special Olympics Nebraska.
Carmody had never worked with people with disabilities, and she admits that she was nervous at first. But she quickly saw that she had nothing to worry about. “I’ve learned that they are kids like me,” she says.
In Omaha Tennis Buddies, the athletes play with volunteers and instructors, including high school students like Carmody and players from Creighton University. For tournaments, such as the Nebraska Special Olympics State Games, each disabled athlete is paired up with an able-bodied partner for the competition.
In her third year with the program, Carmody’s partner was J.D. Mossberg, a 34-year-old with Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. The two instantly clicked. “We have so much fun together,” Mossberg says. “She helps me be the best I can be.”
Ann Mossberg, J.D’s mother, has been very impressed with the program. “They are just really devoted and so good to our kids,” she says. “They work with them just like any other kids and they teach them skills and teamwork.”
Instructors do their best to keep the athletes active on and off the tennis courts by organizing activities such as walking groups and dinner-and-movie nights. They also travel to tournaments in the area, which gives the participants a chance to explore new places together. During a trip to Wichita, KS, last year, the athletes stayed in a hotel for two nights and went to the amusement park to ride go-carts and swings. “It’s really about the friendships,” says Tammy Hill, the group’s co-founder.
But while the focus is on fun, things get pretty competitive on the court. Mossberg doesn’t like to lose, but says he keeps calm and motivated by repeating the Special Olympics slogan, “Let me win, and if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt.”
Mossberg and Carmody didn’t win at the State Games this year, but they will try again in 2015. After all, Carmody’s service hours have become something much more. “They’re just so genuinely happy learning to play tennis,” she says. “I’m teaching them something I love, and it just makes me happy.”