From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Swinging for Respect

The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.

Walter Bagehot

Down the hospital corridor, screams of delight could be heard as children eagerly awaited their turn to hit the brightly colored tennis balls. With each smash, another child’s laughter was heard as it echoed against the sterile walls.

On this particular day, our volunteer staff at Tennis with a Different Swing, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, had traveled to a local Children’s Hospital to work with children with prosthetic devices and those confined to wheelchairs. This unique rehabilitative program does not teach tennis but teaches essential life skills such as eye tracking and eye-to-hand coordination to people with disabilities.

Like many previous sessions, volunteers paired off individually with each of the children. After receiving some minimal instruction on how to hold a racquet, our participants were then allowed to hit the ball. With each mighty swing, the children became more confident.

Then the inevitable happened.

As we handed out racquets, I heard a small boy’s voice behind me.

“May I play, too?” he asked from somewhere. I never looked around to see who was speaking to me and just reached for another racquet, while assuring the child that everyone would be given the opportunity to participate.

Suddenly, I was facing an eight-year-old boy named Joey. Each volunteer stopped what they were doing and gazed at me wondering how I’d handle this situation. While I turned in the direction of the racquet bag pretending to get a racquet, that was not my intention. Near the bag was a physical therapist from the hospital. “What do I do?” I mouthed to her like a mime in shock. “Should I give him a racquet?”

The physical therapist shrugged and whispered to me, “I don’t know. Joey has never asked to participate in any of the sporting activities since he’s been here.”

All the volunteers were stunned because I had just promised Joey—a boy in a wheelchair with no arms or legs, only small stumps where there should have been limbs—a chance to participate. Another staff member asked a nurse where his prosthetic devices were and was promptly told, “Joey doesn’t use them because he doesn’t like them.”

This precocious eight-year-old now embarked on teaching our staff a lesson in courage that we will never, ever forget. He was telling us that he counts. And never ever say that a child can’t.

Joey promptly rolled his wheelchair over to me. He politely, but firmly, asked for the racquet. Before I could speak, he grabbed the racquet with the stub of his right arm and placed the handle under his armpit. With the stub of his left arm, he rolled the wheelchair to a far corner of the room. He placed his two leg stumps apart in the wheelchair to balance himself and ordered me to throw the ball to him. I immediately did what I was told.

Everyone in the room looked on in absolute amazement as this fierce competitor firmly struck the ball.

However, I threw the ball in a wimpy way, trying not to hit Joey, and this did not sit well with him.

“THROW THE BALL HARD!” he hollered at me. A big grin emerged from his face as he commanded, “Throw it again!” Once more, this incredible eight-year-old boy hit the ball down the length of the room.

From that moment on, the philosophy of our organization was born. Volunteers routinely replace any child’s “I can’t” with Joey’s “I can!”

Sheila A. Bolin

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Tennis with a Different Swing, Inc.®, contact Orange Lake Resort & Country Club, 8505 West Irlo Bronson Parkway, Kissimmee, FL 34747; 407-239-2292; fax: 407-239-5192. Among her awards, Sheila has earned a “Point of Light” for her volunteering from the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network, 1400 I Street, N.W., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005; 800-VOLUNTEER; fax: 202-729-8100; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.pointsoflight.org.]

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