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Smiles abundant at annual special needs tennis event

They hopped through obstacle courses, they batted spongy balls with tennis rackets, they kicked around an oversized exercise ball and they played a variety of games.

But through it all, what they did most was smile.

For the ninth year, the Burbank Tennis Center hosted an installment of the Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Special Needs Individuals in a three-day event that began Monday and will conclude Wednesday.

The turnout for the event was the largest since its inception in 2005, as 130 special needs athletes from as young as 4 to adults in their 50s got a chance to hone their skills and have fun at the free event.

"This event had grown every year and I think this year we have 20 to 30 more individuals than we did last year," Burbank Tennis Center Director Steve Starleaf said. "The word is really getting out about this event and people want to come here and take part. This event has helped to put us on the map.

"We are very excited. When we first envisioned the Burbank Tennis Center, we wanted to hold events like this. So it really has been our mission statement to provide something like this to individuals who are very underserved."

Former French Open doubles champions Luke and Murphy Jensen teamed up with tennis professional Vince Schmidt to form the organization that holds a series of academies throughout the country. Schmidt has been a tennis pro for nearly two decades, working with kids and adults. Over the years, he has worked at the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, as well as with Assn. of Tennis Professionals and World Tennis Assn. tour players and Special Olympics athletes.

When he first envisioned the idea for the academy, Schmidt said he had modest expectations. However, he said he has been overwhelmed with the growth of the organization and is proud to see how many individuals the academy has been able to serve.

"It's really unbelievable at what this event has become," Schmidt said. "And it's really mind blowing when I sit back and think about it. It has become much more than I could even have imagined it would. But we really couldn't do it without our sponsors and all the volunteers who come out and make this happen. They are the ones who really make it happen."

One of those sponsors is the Burbank-based Greenlight Foundation. The ability for the athletes to attend at no cost was provided by the foundation. Under the direction of Bill Greene, the organization has sponsored the local event all nine years.

"Our goal is to serve as many people as possible and with the numbers this year are definitely up," Greene said. "We have the organizations that usually bring their share of individuals, but this year we've really seen an increase of what we call independents, who show up on their own after hearing about us. We have been flooded with more than 50 of those types of participants this year."

Children and adults with Down syndrome and other afflictions took part in the academy for free. Equipment, food and refreshments were also provided at no cost.

The academy was established and designed to meet the sport-specific needs of children and adults with special needs. Along with tennis instruction, athletes learned physical training and got the opportunity to take part in games and other activities. Through the three-day event, participants take part in a wide variety of activities. Athletes were given the opportunity to improve their tennis skills, as instructors put the players through practices, skills drills, coordination exercises and various other physical activities at a variety of stations.

With a trained staff of instructors, academy coaches teach athletes through motivational exercises and positive reinforcement. The academy boasts that by playing tennis, individuals with special needs can enhance their physical conditioning, as well as their social and mental abilities.

The event also benefited from an army of volunteers, including members of the Burbank High Key Club, the Burroughs High Key Club and the McCambridge Park Tennis Club. The Key Club members served as "buddies" for many of younger athletes, helping them get to the various stations and generally assisting them throughout the three days.

Family members of athletes who participated praised the academy and the Burbank Tennis Center for providing a fun and educational environment.

"We have come for four or five years now and we love it," said Carol Magarino from Downey, whose son, Brandon, 9, attended the academy. "They are very patient with him and he likes all of the activities. It's just nice to have events like this where he can go to and just have fun."

Hector Santiago is from Mission Hills, and his son, Steven, 9, participated in the event. Hector said the academy provided an opportunity for his son to get out, interact with others and get in some physical activity.

"What is good for him is he gets to enjoy the day and get out of the house," he said. "But he also gets to be involved in sports and we try to include him in the sports he likes.

"But this is just a great event overall. For somebody to open this up for individuals like these is pretty special. It is a different world we live in for these individuals than it probably was 20 or 30 years ago."

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