Program builds character and community wellness through tennis

August 22, 2018
Celeste Mahfood
photographer: Anne Koterba

Live healthier lives and develop life skills. That is the goal of Gators in Motion, an afterschool program that partners with the University of Florida’s Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management, the Gainesville Area Community Tennis Association, and UF’s College Reach Out Program. This unique partnership is for local low-income, middle and high school aged students and incorporates tutoring, sports, college prep and life skills.

Developed in Spring 2016 by Addison Staples, a College of Health and Human Performance alumnus and former lecturer, along with Trevor Bopp, an alumnus and assistant professor at HHP, Gators in Motion has partnered with Aces in Motion, a program with a similar theme of improving academic and sport levels.

Gators in Motion Kelvin Mattier, Addison Staples

Kelvin Mattier, Addison Staples

Using tennis to promote character development, academic achievement and healthy lifestyles, Gators in Motion specifically targets middle and high school students from local low- income neighborhoods in the Gainesville area. Thanks to grants and private donations, the program is free, but participants must commit to attending three days a week, and parents must attend quarterly group and individual meetings with the Gators in Motion staff. 

One of the goals is to create equity in the community, despite economic disparity, says Staples, who serves as the Aces in Motion Executive Director. One hundred percent of the student participants are at or below the federal mark of poverty, he says. 

The majority of the 38 regular students are African-American. The volunteers are trained to teach children and to be culturally competent and culturally sensitive.

“When people typically hear of a tennis program, they’re not typically thinking of low-income, black youth,” says Staples. Universities can appear unreachable to children in low-income neighborhoods, he adds. Gators in Motion provides opportunities for students to develop personal relationships with University of Florida professors and introduce them to new sports, interests and career options.

Gators in Motion tennis

Gators in Motion is held on campus at the Florida Gymnasium.

UF athletics and club sports teams volunteer throughout the semester, says Bopp, who, as an assistant professor at HHP, collects data to measure and ensure the program will positively impact the students by analyzing participants’ grades, physical literacy and resiliency. 

Held on campus at the Florida Gymnasium, UF benefits by creating more involvement with current students and generates interest in attending college among the participants. Every week over the past year and a half, 13 UF interns and 140 UF volunteers assist with the program.

Gators in Motion Jasmine Hamilton

Jasmine Hamilton

“We are delighted to host Addison and the team at Gators in Motion in the Florida Gym,” said Michael Reid, the dean of the College of Health and Human Performance. “The college is proud to be associated with this inspiring program and the many community members who participate. Our students and faculty are truly blessed by this wonderful partnership.”

Bopp says one reason the program has been so well received by the UF community is because it offers practical and local impact, alongside its research component. 

Each day, the first hour is spent doing homework with one-on-one tutors. The second hour consists of tennis on Mondays, and character development and life skills on Tuesdays through Thursdays. In addition, the students tour facilities, colleges and attend UF sporting events throughout the year in an effort to showcase the rich academic offerings on campus. 

“Gators in Motion brings the kids onto campus and gives them experiences they might not otherwise have,” Bopp said. “It’s really instilling in them the value of education and the opportunities that they have in front of them.”

Gators in Motion chem group

Eric Lanham, S’rai Davis-Reed, Marcus Mack, Makaila Dunlap and a volunteer from UF Chemistry conduct a demonstration in a campus laboratory.

Asa Garcia, a former UF track athlete and recent alumna from HHP, volunteered at Gators in Motion for over a year, starting in 2017. 

She first heard about the program through an email sent out through the college. She took on the mentorship role to make a difference in the children’s lives. The students were able to look up to her as an African-American college athlete, Garcia says. 

Volunteers are from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and majors. The students don’t only get one type of person to interact with, Garcia says. “I felt like I was being so much of a benefit with who I am.  I’m a college athlete. I’m from out of state. They Google my name, and they’re like ‘Miss Asa, you’re on Google!’” 

Respect, responsibility, discipline and character development are all things Gators in Motion stands for, Garcia says. Seeing the volunteers with positive attitudes while struggling to play tennis motivated the students to try. The volunteers led by example by encouraging each other and using positive team work. 

One participant, Camryn Ford, a tenth grader at Eastside High School, was accepted into the program in eighth grade. 

Garcia’s presence in the program fueled his inspiration to try out for the track team in high school, but he said she was his favorite volunteer because she also helped him academically. 

His plan after high school is to become an entrepreneur or maybe a chef. He was accepted into Eastside High School’s culinary program, and the Gators in Motion coaches continue to encourage him in his life goals. 

“Gators in Motion is hopefully changing futures and motivating some kids that college is an option,” Staples said. “And I think that is the power that UF holds in this community. I think UF should be commended for opening their doors.” 

On October 12, UF will host the Tom and Susie Wasdin Speaker’s Bureau, which is partnering with Aces in Motion. The speakers will include three former professional tennis players, Todd Martin, MaliVai Washington and Bryan Shelton. The event is open to the public and details will be shared soon at hhp.ufl.edu.

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