Billy Levi describes FoxCreek Family Tennis Center in Lorain as “the happiest place on earth” on Saturdays. A dozen-plus people enrolled in Buddy Up Tennis, a program for children and adults with Down syndrome, eagerly take over two of the indoor facility’s four hard courts, each accompanied by a volunteer “buddy,” at 11:30 a.m. Thirty to 40 parents, siblings and friends watch as Levi, the center’s tennis director, and certified tennis instructor Rich Robbins lead the participants in a 90-minute clinic of fitness drills and tennis instruction.
“The heck with the tennis,” Levi declares. “It’s total love!” 
The scene is repeated on tennis courts in a dozen other cities from Waco, Texas, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the result of teaching techniques developed and funds raised by New Albany, Ohio-based Buddy Up Tennis. The nonprofit was launched in 2008 by Beth Gibson, the mother of a son with Down syndrome who became interested in the sport as a 3-year-old watching her play the game with his older brother. Levi first read about Buddy Up Tennis in a tennis-industry publication a few years ago and contacted Gibson about offering the program at FoxCreek. Gibson helped recruit buddies from organizations such as the Amherst High School and Oberlin College tennis teams for a series of 10 weekly clinics that began in late October. They were so popular that the center scheduled another round of sessions that end April 30.
“You always want to give back in tennis or whatever your business is,” Levi explains. “It just struck me that there was a program for this — I didn’t even think there was something out there for these kids for tennis. So when I inquired about it, read the article and talked to Beth, it made sense to try to offer it in this area. There was just nothing up in this part for Northeast Ohio.” The closest facility offering the program was in Akron.
Each clinic begins with 45 minutes of drills designed to build fitness and coordination. Levi describes activities such as hopping over rungs of agility ladders placed on the ground, navigating inches-high balance beams and shooting balls into baskets, along with old-fashioned pushups, jumping jacks and tugs-of-war. “We have kids really moving, breaking a sweat,” he enthuses. The last 45 minutes are devoted to developing basic tennis skills: forehands, backhands, volleys, serves.
“We finish off with a big game of duck-duck-goose,” Levi adds.
Most participants improve to the point that they’re able to hit a tennis ball back and forth with a teaching pro or buddy. “In case there are some balance issues or something like that, the buddy is there to assist,” Levi says. The benefits of participation extend beyond improved fitness and tennis skills. Athletes gain self-confidence, develop social skills and build friendships.
“There is no failure in this program,” Levi declares. “It is all success.”
The Buddy Up Tennis organization provides all equipment, including racquets; FoxCreek supplies the space, balls and instruction. Fees to offset operating costs are $40 a month or $15 a clinic. (According to, “donations and corporate sponsorships help ensure that all our athletes can participate regardless of financial status.”) For more information, call 440-282-8366.