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Tennis camp hits the mark with special needs kids
Lori Carter returns a volley at the Bobby Bailey Tennis Complex at Alberta Banks Park Tuesday afternoon during tennis camp for special needs students. Claire Crain hosted the camp to help her achieve the Girl Scouts Gold Award.

Tyler Whitmire, 13, had never played tennis before, but on Tuesday he was lobbing the ball over the net like a professional.

Whitmire and 20 other special needs students around Hall County are learning the basics of tennis this week at the Bobby Bailey Tennis Complex at Alberta Banks Park in Flowery Branch. The Special Tennis for Special People camp was started by Claire Crain, a rising senior at Johnson High School, as part of her Girl Scouts Gold Award project.

“I already have a passion for tennis, starting on the varsity team at Johnson since freshman year,” Crain said. “My little brother has special needs, so I have a passion for that community, which doesn’t have a lot of activities for them to do.”

Crain modeled her camp after the Elsie Conde Memorial Sports Camp, which teaches baseball and basketball to special needs students in the area. She recruited tennis players from Hall County high schools to coach for the week, found volunteers from Girl Scouts to pass out snacks and sent out camp applications through the Hall County Board of Education office.

“The Gold Award project is a community-based idea to just help further involvement in the community,” Crain said. “I really hope this will be taken over by Parks and Recreation or someone to help continue this every summer.”

The students are learning the basics — warm-up routines, forehand and backhand swings, volleys and serves — before playing in a round robin tournament at the end of the week.

“I was glad there’s something for these kids to do. There’s not a lot out here for them,” said Tyler’s mom Donna Whitmire, smiling as he hit balls high into the air. “He’s played golf and baseball for years, and this seems more fast-paced.”

The camp is also a learning experience for volunteers, said Drew Jones, a rising junior on the Johnson varsity tennis team.

“It’s great to interact with the kids, and teaching is such a different experience,” he said. “With coaching, you have to have a lot more patience. It’s great because you’re teaching them a game you love to play.”

Many parents expressed their gratitude to Crain for starting a camp their students could attend and have fun without frustration. The campers were excited as they grabbed rackets and tennis balls for another night on the court.

“I really like this camp,” said James Dickerson, a rising senior at North Hall High School, as he hit balls out of the court. “I’ve learned to hit the ball at school, but here we’re doing backhand and forehand.”

Though the camp teaches the basics, students split up into groups and hit all skill levels just right.

“I love tennis. I got involved in elementary school,” said Jordan Collins, who recently graduated from North Hall High. “Now I’m refreshing my memory. The camp is a blast, and I encourage students to give it a shot — whether they’re special needs or not.”