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Finding their place

They are special individuals who have found a special place.

For many from a group who have been told what they cannot do throughout their lives, a three-day event at the Burbank Tennis Center showcased that they can indeed accomplish a great deal — and have fun doing it.

Smiles, laughter, high-fives and a lot of hugs were in abundance at the seventh annual Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Special Needs Individuals that took place Monday-Wednesday at the Burbank facility.

Vince Schmidt, a tennis professional, joined with former French Open doubles champions Murphy and Luke Jensen to form the nonprofit academy, which began holding events at the Burbank Tennis Center in 2005. The academy was established and is designed to meet the sport-specific needs of children and adults with various afflictions.

"What's great is that we often see the same people from year to year, and it becomes like family," said Schmidt, who has a son with Down syndrome. "It's just great to see how much fun they have and how much they really get out of it for the three days. It's a very big deal for many of them."

Throughout the three days, athletes form just a few years old to adults with Down syndrome and other afflictions were given the opportunity to improve their tennis skills, as instructors and an army of volunteers put the players through practices, skills drills, coordination exercises and various other physical activities.

One of the unique aspects of the event at the Burbank Tennis Center is that all of the athletes get the opportunity to attend the academy at no cost. Along with three days at the academy, individuals were also are provided with free equipment and food. The ability for the athletes to attend at no cost was provided by the Burbank-based Greenlight Foundation. Under the direction of Bill Greene, the organization has sponsored the local event all seven years.

"We were maxed out this year, and I think we had about 120 taking part," Greene said. "When we started seven years ago we had 70, so it's really grown over the years. Obviously, that happens because we're doing something that people like."

Volunteers made sure the event ran smoothly. Along with parents, volunteer coaches and players giving a helping hand, members of the Burbank High Key Club served as "buddies" for many of younger athletes, helping them get to the various stations and generally assisting them throughout the three days.

The event also got help from the ladies of the McCambridge Park Tennis Club, who lent a hand throughout the three days.

Greene said the volunteers are vital to the success of the event.

"For the smaller kids, having the buddy system is of the utmost importance," he said. "They really need someone to shepherd them around and make sure they are where they need to be and make sure they are taking part in all the activities. We really count on the volunteers. We just have a fantastic group that helps us out and they learn to love the kids after the three days."

On Tuesday, Burbank Mayor Jess Telamantes paid a visit and took part in some tennis activities. He said events like the Jensen-Schmidt clinic show the importance the Burbank Tennis Center has in the community.

"That's what the facility is all about, the community aspect," he said. "It really serves not only the local organizations, but the national organizations as well. Just to see the smiles on the kids' faces…that's the real payoff."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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