Every Wednesday this spring, a couple hours after the final bell echoes through JSerra High’s hallways, the chairs and the rackets come out at the tennis courts.
Keith and Kirk Orahood, twin brothers who’ve coached tennis at JSerra for more than a decade, have come to know the group well. Miles, with the smile. Nellie, the giggly 10-year-old. Gianna, who has a prosthetic leg and is labeled the best athlete in her family.
All have disabilities, impairing their ability to walk. None had played tennis before attending an after-school camp held by the Orahoods. Yet at the end of each half-hour session, they wheel into a circle and hold out their rackets, lifting them to the sky after a chant of “1-2-3, tennis!”
“There’s a little bit of heaven going on on these courts,” Keith Orahood said.
The first step in an initiative to build a multi-sport adaptive athletics program at JSerra, the Orahoods have been running this wheelchair tennis clinic since April 13. The plan, they say, is to turn the school into a “mecca” for adaptive sports in the area.
“This is a population of kids that we have not necessarily served yet,” said Chris Ledyard, JSerra’s athletic director. “When it came to be something that Keith did and it worked so well, it’s like, ‘Wow, let’s start looking at this across the board.’”
Fourteen-year-old Gianna was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a condition affecting the femur bone that typically results in one leg being shorter than another. At 16 months old, she was amputated.
She’s able to walk with her prosthetic — but with mobility limited, she’s using a wheelchair provided by the camp for the first time. It’s taken some getting used to, she said. But she’s drawn Kirk’s eye with some impressive racket control.
“Down in Orange County, there’s not a lot of adaptive programs for kids with disabilities,” said Gianna, who’ll attend Santa Margarita High in the fall. “I’m very proud to be a part of it, because growing up with a disability, it’s hard to connect with people around you that are also like you. So having these opportunities are, in a way, life-changing.”
The Orahoods have worked with the Wounded Warrior Project, and Keith has a coaching certification in wheelchair tennis with the United States Tennis Assn. During the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, he felt a “tug on [his] heartstrings,” he said. It was time to put that certification to use.
The brothers have been working on a business plan the last couple of years to bring a wave of adaptive sports to JSerra. The key component: they’d be free of charge, relying on coaches to give an hour and a half of their time per week and school donors to chip in for equipment.
“When you have a child with a disability, you have expenses that never end,” said Tiffany Foulger, Nellie’s mom. “For this to be free … it’s a dream.”
Wheelchairs for the tennis camp, Keith said, were built from scratch at the end of 2021 — each costing nearly $3,000. JSerra parents and board members provided the funds, and the chairs were shipped a couple months later.
With the success of the after-school program — seeing Miles’ face, as Keith said, “[light] up like a Christmas tree” — the twins are looking forward to initiating the larger plan.
“We’re just like the little Boy Scouts that are trying to light the fire with the little twig … we’re going to do everything we can to turn that into a big fire,” Kirk Orahood said. “We’re not going to let it go out.”