Big serve

Tennis Buddies founder Christian Boschert brings a love of the game to Special Olympians.

Christian Boschert

Mizzou engineering major Christian Boschert brought a tennis club for special-needs kids to Kansas City. Now he works with Columbia Special Olympics to help athletes develop their skills and confidence.

Christian Boschert has played sports since he was a child. Tennis and soccer became his favorites, but his parents encouraged him to try everything. Now it is Boschert who encourages young athletes to expand their horizons, working with special-needs children who share an interest in sports.

“I feel like I’ve been very blessed to be able to play sports my entire life,” says Boschert, a mechanical-engineering major who will be a sophomore in the fall. “I want to help these athletes have fun in the same sports that I play.”

Tennis buddies

Boschert’s volunteering began while he was a student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Leawood, Kan., where he attended Special Olympic soccer practices once or twice a week.

In the summer of 2011, he heard about a program in Omaha, Neb., called Tennis Buddies, which provided extra practice time for Special Olympics athletes who couldn’t get enough tennis.

He wanted to bring that program to Kansas City. To do that, he would have to secure funding, find court time, recruit volunteers and identify athletes. That’s a lot for anyone, especially someone preparing for his senior year of high school.

Boschert worked with the United States Tennis Association to secure a grant and was able to get court time — at a discounted rate — each Sunday night at Overland Park Racquet Club. He then asked Sid and Nan Kanter, who work with special-needs residents of the Kansas City area, to help identify athletes.

“He knew exactly what he wanted to do,” says Nan Kanter, program coordinator for special populations at Blue Valley Recreation and director of Blue Valley Special Olympics. “He came very well prepared for this mission.”

All that was left was to find volunteers. That wasn’t too difficult, seeing that he had grown up playing tennis with others who shared his interest in the sport. Many of them immediately signed up.

Improved play = improved confidence

For the next year, Boschert spent every Sunday night at Tennis Buddies with a group of 12-15 athletes.

“We kept the group pretty small because of the limited court space,” Boschert says. “We wanted to open it to people who would come every week and just love it. That’s the athletes we had.”

While the group had its standouts athletes — including one who took part in the World Games in Greece — it was another participant who caught Boschert’s attention: a girl who struggled to grasp the fundamentals. She would spend a majority of the time in the corner, near tears.

“It was heartbreaking,” Boschert says. “I decided to stay on her court for a couple weeks and work with her.”

For the next few Sundays, Boschert focused most of his attention on her, working to improve her game and her excitement for tennis.

“He truly cares about others, especially those with special needs,” Nan Kanter says. “He is always positive with the athletes and helps them to build their self-confidence. He is not afraid to get involved with the athletes.”

Eventually the girl improved, and with that her confidence rose.

“I could see her mood get better,” Boschert says. “Instead of hiding in the corner, she would run out to the courts. She got to be one of the better ones there. It was great to see the change in her demeanor in the course of about a month.”

When Boschert left for college, he turned the program over to another volunteer, who continues to help Tennis Buddies flourish.

“They are still playing every Sunday night,” he says. “The program is in good hands.”

‘Biggest smiles you have ever seen’

Among the first calls Boschert made when he arrived at Mizzou before the start of the fall 2012 semester was to Jody Cook, the Special Olympics coordinator for Columbia Parks and Recreation.

“I just couldn’t leave it behind when I got here,” he says. “I loved it too much and knew that I had to be involved. It is part of me now.”

He worked with Columbia Special Olympics bowlers in the fall and spent the winter coaching a basketball team that won a regional tournament.

Spring brought track season, and Boschert spent each Thursday night at West Junior High School in Columbia coaching the track athletes.

“He enjoys his interactions with the athletes and looks beyond the disabilities at the individuals themselves,” Cook says.

For Boschert, the reward is found on the faces of the athletes.

“It is cool to see how excited they get about everything,” he says. “No matter how well they did, they love it.”

His favorite part of a track meet is the medal ceremony, which inspires, Boschert says, “the biggest smiles you have ever seen.”

“I’m not sure if it’s the athletes or Christian who gets more out of it,” Cook says.

Always finding time

Boschert’s volunteer work doesn’t stop with Special Olympics. He also tutors math students once a week at Hickman High School and is on the St. Patrick’s Board, the Engineering Week Committee at MU that organizes fundraisers and activities.

In April Boschert was named the freshman recipient of the Hesburgh Scholarship, given to one student in each undergraduate class at MU who excels academically and in the community.

While maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, Boschert keeps a rigorous schedule, but he always carves out time for the friends he has made through Special Olympics.

“It’s a really great break from the world,” he says. “It’s just a happy time full of smiles.”

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