Buddy Up Tennis, a fitness program for children and young adults with Down syndrome, began with one boy and one coach, according to founder and New Albany resident Beth Gibson.

Buddy Up Tennis, a fitness program for children and young adults with Down syndrome, began with one boy and one coach, according to founder and New Albany resident Beth Gibson.

That boy is Gibson's 11-year-old son, Will, who was 3 at the time.

Gibson said she and her elder son, Keegan, played tennis at Wickertree Tennis & Fitness Club in Columbus.

Wickertree coach Doug DiRosario eventually decided to teach Will the sport.

"He saw that Will was totally enthralled with watching Keegan play, and so he wanted to teach him how to play," Gibson said.

Gibson said the organization began with a casual clinic held in partnership with the Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio. The first clinic was held Dec. 10, 2008, and the nonprofit organization was founded in 2010.

"We weren't looking to grow or anything," she said.

Now, Buddy Up Tennis has a curriculum that is shared to train buddies and volunteers, Gibson said. A volunteer coordinator, typically an athlete's parent, manages each location.

Each athlete is provided with a buddy for the entire clinic, which includes instruction, drills and fitness and conditioning.

For her work founding Buddy Up Tennis, Gibson was chosen as one of five 2016 Jefferson Award winners. The program, organized by WBNS-10TV, recognizes central Ohio residents who have made strides in improving their communities. Winners were celebrated during an April 7 ceremony at the Wigwam in Pickerington.

Although the growth of the organization was unstructured, Buddy Up Tennis now has 15 locations in nine states, Gibson said.

Down syndrome and tennis associations are reaching out, looking to start their own programs to support their members, she said.

In Columbus, Buddy Up holds 90-minute clinics most Saturday mornings at Wickertree, where about 30 to 40 athletes, each paired with a volunteer, play on the court, she said.

Gibson said the program is beneficial for community members who volunteer money or time.

"They know exactly where the funding is going to," she said. "They see an immediate impact."

While volunteers can build relationships with the athletes, the athletes themselves gain confidence and make friends, developing emotionally and physically, Gibson said.

DiRosario, the co-founder and junior director of Buddy Up, said he made a connection with Will when Beth began bringing him to Wickertree as a baby.

When Will was a bit older, DiRosario and co-worker Stephanie Anderson brought the child to the pee-wee court, he said.

"We had no idea what we were doing," DiRosario said.

They decided to research how to teach tennis to children with Down syndrome, he said.

Now, DiRosario said, when he travels to different sites, he can't believe he's there to assist with the Buddy Up program.

"I have zero doubt that eventually we'll be in every state," he said.