“Everyone deserves the chance to play” was much more than just a motto on a T-shirt for the participants UCF’s inaugural Adaptive Tennis Day this spring. Hosted at no cost by the UCF Recreation & Wellness Center May 31 at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida, participants of all ages and abilities joined volunteers to share in the joys of tennis.

Jill Fjelstul, an associate professor at the UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management and founder of the nonprofit Champions at Play, organized the event with the goal of providing a fun and memorable experience for all involved — having seen first-hand in her own family the positive impact that sports can have on individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“When this current opportunity was presented, I was all in,” Fjelstul says.

Many of the participants hailed from UCF’s Inclusive Education Services (IES) program, which provides adults with intellectual disabilities ages 18-30 an inclusive, comprehensive, non-degree seeking college experience. Knights Exemplar, a registered student organization at UCF further supports IES students in these pursuits. It was founded on the principle of bridging the gap, allowing IES students to make the most out of their experiences at UCF.

Taylor Duffy ’20 co-founded Knights Exemplar during his time as a student, and it was named the university’s Student Organization of the Year in 2020. A nationally-ranked tennis player in his youth before an elbow injury derailed his competitive career, he led the on-court instruction for the adults and was also instrumental in creating the event.

After graduating with a degree in health sciences, Duffy has stayed involved at UCF in student and alumni outreach. He was also appointed to Orange County’s Disability Advisory Board by Mayor Jerry Demings, and was elected vice-chair last year.

“More than forehands and backhands, we wanted participants to leave the event empowered with newfound friendships and confidence,” Duffy says. “In many of them, I recognized the same excitement that I had when I attended my very first tennis camp.”

The verdict was unanimous, from the parents of the younger participants through to the UCF students and volunteers. One parent, who preferred to remain anonymous, says that the volunteers’ and Fjelstul’s enthusiasm was a highlight.

“The patience and perseverance the staff showed in working with my son was truly remarkable,” the parent says. “In the end, my son was responding to the instructions and seemed to enjoy himself. I appreciated the fact that Jill came over and hit some balls with him. This adaptive tennis program could really make a difference in the lives of these kids.”

The event also afforded UCF students like Lois Hale the opportunity to be re-introduced to the sport. Others, like Ann Truong, were much newer to the game.

“It was so nice being able to play tennis with everyone,” Truong says. “We all picked up the game pretty quickly, but the best part of the event was being able to hang out and crack a few jokes here and there.”

Fellow student Zakariya Elkhayat called the experience a memorable one.

“Seeing everyone have fun and pushing outside of their comfort zone was remarkable,” Elkhayat says. “I cannot wait to go to the next event.”