No one can steal ninth-grader Graycen Schwartz’s thunder when she strikes with her racquet at the tennis court. Yet, once Saturday comes around, from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Schwartz can be found volunteering at the Sarasota BuddyUp program for three years. BuddyUp is a not-for-profit organization based from Ohio that offers fitness for people with DS, in which individual programs are established in numerous towns nationwide. Schwartz contributes her best efforts to guide youth with Down Syndrome, or DS, in playing tennis.
Ever since she was four years old, Schwartz has pursued tennis, and she currently plays for the Riverview Girls’ tennis team. When she was in seventh grade, her curiosity for the BuddyUp clinic was sparked by her coach, Cathy Rosenburg, who has been volunteering for BuddyUp for the past 7 years. Although Schwartz was not in high school at the time, which made her younger than the typical age to volunteer, Rosenburg recruited Schwartz knowing that she had a beneficial skill set in tennis and mentoring.
“There’s a lot to it. Teaching tennis is a part of it, but it’s just helping these kids navigate through the day, or through this hour and a half. Sometimes it can be super rewarding, and sometimes it can be stressful. But Graycen does a really good job to assess the situation and figuring out what’s going to work out for the group of kids on that day,” Rosenburg said.
At the clinic, individuals with DS are grouped by age and level of experience in tennis. As a volunteer, or a “buddy”, Schwartz is paired with an individual with DS; she generally works with the younger kids. The first 45 minutes are spent doing fitness exercises and games that vary from hurdles, ladders and throwing in each station. In the second half of the time, the kids focus on tennis.
Schwartz has been heavily involved in promoting and attending the program’s events and fundraisers, such as the “Club Cup” on Apr. 19 and “BuddyUp with the Stars” Apr. 26. The “Club Cup” was a competitive mini tennis tournament, while “BuddyUp with the Stars” was a showcase of the kids’ tennis skills through singles and doubles matches.
Schwartz’s friend, Ella Szmania, who has also participated as a buddy for these past two years, attended the “BuddyUp with the Stars” event, stating how it was her favorite experience.
“We drive up there together, and then we get involved and we kind of help to spread the word about it. Going to the “BuddyUp with the Stars” event, all the kids there were really happy and excited and they were having such a good time. There were news people there and famous tennis stars, and they were just inspiring all the kids,” Szmania said.
Moreover, Schwartz has taken the initiative to tackle more leadership roles within BuddyUp.
“She’s also taken more leadership with our social media and getting the word out [on events]. Besides social media, she’ll be in charge of recruiting more buddies, leading a court for me,” Rosenburg said.
Alison Schwartz, Graycen’s mother, has witnessed how the BuddyUp program not only benefits the people with DS who are involved, but also how the program has impacted her daughter.
“For me, [Graycen’s volunteer work] gives me a lot of joy. I like to see her smile, and you really see genuine smiles that are in a place where it’s not school; it’s not homework. She’s really out there on her own, and she’s really just being herself, and it just really makes me happy,” Alison Schwartz said.
At the end of the day, being a buddy for Schwartz has brought more than an improvement of mentoring skills; it has brought joy and positive enlightenment to Schwartz, as she whole-heartedly enjoys dedicating her time to guide those with DS.
“People think of Down Syndrome and might feel sorry for the parents, but it can be a gift. The kids have such happy and good attitudes about everything, and they have really positive outlooks on life, and that’s pretty cool and inspiring. So, I’ve definitely learned that — to appreciate life more — just from all of it, from all the kids,” Schwartz said.