September 2010 -- Funding his annual Special Olympics event is tough in a tight economy, but Mark Pachtner and friends still have tennis skills - and pure joy - to share with some enthusiastic young learners.
Pachtner has organized this specialized tennis clinic in different parts of the country for the past 10 years and although "it's a little more challenging right now, it doesn't deter us," he said.
This USPTA Professional and grassroots activist is in the process of raising $2,000, via sponsors and donations, to cover the costs of his first Special Olympics Tennis Fun Day at Troon Country Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The free clinic for children and teenagers with intellectual - and, in some cases, physical - challenges is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at Troon Country Club, where he has worked since January. He also is employed as a professional skills coach for the boys' high School team at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Scottsdale.
Pachtner expects total participation of approximately 100 people - 45 to 50 special athletes between the ages of 8 to 18 and help from 40 to 50 volunteers, teaching professionals and club members.
During the Fun Day of clinics and exhibition play, the volunteer pros will hit with each other and play points with the participants. But the special athletes will not compete against each other since most have never played tennis before, Pachtner said.
Each athlete will receive a gold medal for participation and a Polaroid picture of himself during an awards luncheon. With Troon Country Club members and others donating racquets, participants who don't have a racquet will get to keep one.
Athletes and volunteers alike will take home a commemorative T-shirt. They also will get to explore a fire engine, courtesy of the Scottsdale Fire Department.
Each year he also tries to find a local celebrity to serve as emcee and to arrange for local TV coverage.
Over the past decade, Pachtner has organized the annual Fun Day at clubs in several states, including Minnesota, Georgia, California and Florida. These events have touched the lives of 750 special athletes and more than 500 volunteers.
This USPTA Southwest Division board member and 2002 Georgia Pro of the year said he has always been fortunate to have the support of both management and the tennis committee at each facility where he has worked and to have been well-received in reaching out to the local chapters of the Special Olympics. But this effort is basically a "one-man show" and he spends an average of eight to nine months organizing the annual event.
Pachtner appeals to individuals, businesses and the local chamber of commerce for donations and sponsorships. He has also applied for a USTA grant this year. In the past, he has donated any unused funds to the Special Olympics.
In 2001, he helped at the National Special Olympics games in Atlanta. He was asked to personally assist with the tennis competition.
Pachtner has been involved with Special Olympics since 1998, when he relocated to Minnesota from his native Germany. Dave Goetz, coach at the University of Minnesota, needed pros to assist with a clinic for his Inner City Tennis Program. They offered free instruction for kids who couldn't afford to participate in paid programs.
Pachtner then moved to Georgia and, as the head pro at Dunwoody Country Club, was in charge of the Special Olympics Tennis Fun Day for the next four to five years.
"Once I took my first tennis director's job, I made it my goal to establish the Fun Day at every club where I work," he said.
"On a personal note, I had a cousin who grew up in the '60s and '70s in Germany and there was nothing for him to do - no organized activities - and being a child with Down Syndrome had some kind of stigma at that time.
"More importantly, I really enjoy working with these athletes and seeing them smile and hugging everyone . It makes me happy and fulfilled," Pachtner said.
Not only is it rewarding, but it helps grow the game. Some of the clinic participants take up the sport; several parents asked him to give a private lesson.
Some of the athletes involved in a 2008 clinic at Tuscawilla Country Club in Winter Springs, Fla., later formed a tennis team. Pachtner donated some racquets, tennis balls and teaching equipment for over $1,000 and worked with the team's new coach to help him find the right approach to teaching this unique group.
The Special Olympics Tennis Fun Day is an extremely positive, and often touching, experience for participants and volunteers alike.
Many times, Special Olympics athletes send touching thank-you cards and letters. "It's amazing; what they put in there tells you how much it means to them," Pachtner said. "To us it might be so little, but to them it's such an impact."
For more information or to volunteer for the Special Olympics Tennis Fun Day, contact Mark Pachtner at the Troon Country Club, 480-585-9878, or firstname.lastname@example.org.