WATERTOWN, MA - When Sejal Vallabh visited Tokyo last year, she didn't just bring home the usual T-shirts and postcards.
She brought home a brand-new passion - one that has already helped a group of youngsters with a disability enjoy the game of tennis.
While in Tokyo with a community service organization, Vallabh helped out a group dedicated to introducing tennis to visually-impaired youngsters.
Inspired by her exposure to the program, Vallabh went to work to set up a similar program at the Perkins School for the Blind, a Boston-area institution that provides education and services for children and adults around the world who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired.
"I was looking for ways to give back to tennis. I know how expensive it can be," said Vallabh, a sophomore at Newton North High School who participates in USTA New England junior tournaments and is a doubles player on her school team. To do that she worked as a junior counselor at the Newton Tennis camp and gave private lessons. Her internship showed her that there were more people tennis could serve. "After meeting the blind students in Tokyo, and seeing how excited they were, I knew that I wanted to bring the sport here."
Vallabh approached the Perkins School with her idea, trained the school's physical education teachers, recruited the help of several of her friends and teammates from Newton North and other area high schools and Tennis SERVES was off and running.
Sejal Vallabh (above) is introducing tennis to visually-impaired students.
Vallabh has received a helping hand from classmates Kayla Shore, who has handled the group's publicity efforts and Ilana Greenstein, who is charged with recruiting volunteers, most of which are high school students.
Currently about 20 Perkins School students, ranging in age from 16-20, take part in the after-school programming.
The group uses an equipment hybrid of sorts, with shorter nets and smaller racquets usually associated with QuickStart Tennis and modified balls and playing surfaces.
"The balls are larger than normal and have a ping-pong ball inside them. Inside that ball are smaller metal balls that make noise when the ball hits the ground, which allows the players to use their sense of hearing to locate the ball," Vallabh explained. "The lines of the court are tactile. They are created by taping down long pieces of string. The students can feel the lines with their feet, and figure out where they are on the court."
Tennis SERVES was given mini-nets from Phil Parrish of Longfellow Tennis Club.
Vallabh's ambitions include making tennis for the visually-impaired available beyond the Boston area and across the United States. Ultimately, she would like the sport to expand internationally and eventually become an official event at the Paralympic Games.
"Teaching the students is more than just a rewarding experience for me," Vallabh said. "The volunteers and I have learned so much about perseverance from the students. The students could easily get discouraged, but they don't. Their faces just light up when they make contact with the ball. I have realized that volunteering is a two-way street; the volunteers and the students learn from one another."