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A young participant in the Seeds of Hope program gets ready to smash an overhead in a pickleball match at Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle in Encinitas. The club’s members are helping young African refugees learn the game. Courtesy photo
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Sports Talk: New experience for refugee kids — taking a whack at pickleball

To connect with children from the other side of the world, all John Riedy did was walk to his car.

“It was a total random meeting,” he said.

Riedy, like countless other pickleball enthusiasts at Encinitas’ Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle, often parks next door at the Venture Church. It was there that Riedy came across Melissa Drake and her Seeds of Hope program. It consists of refugee children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Drake serving as their schoolteacher.

But all work and no play makes anyone long for recreation. That’s certainly true with kids and teenagers, and hey, you guys ever try pickleball?

The answer was no, and that was quickly changed thanks to the kindness of Riggs members.

Steve Dawson, the club owner, set aside three courts once a week for the youngsters to use.

Justin Levine bought a net so those fresh to the sport could practice in between classes at the church.

Others contributed paddles, balls and any other equipment needed for these pickleball novices to get a feel for the game. About 12 children play for an hour with some six volunteers, going through drills and game situations like old pros.

“They are getting really good at it,” Carlsbad’s Riedy said. “It is so fun to see these kids so joyful and running around. They have an absolute blast.”

It goes both ways, and we’re not talking about the ball traversing the court.

“It’s a real blessing for both parties,” said Drake, an Encinitas resident. “The kids and the volunteers.”

Rosa, one of the Seeds of Hope students, is all in with this sport.

“Something that pickleball has taught me is that it is OK to make mistakes,” she said. “Just play and have as much fun as possible.”

Drake is an ace in her own right, providing lessons and guidance to students who were often left behind in traditional schools. She supplies the love, and extra instruction, that will help her charges morph from being refugees into strong community members.

“Most of them have been in the country about three to five years,” she said. “We start them in small home-school pods and provide them education and opportunities.”

With pickleball giving them a chance to attempt something that they had no idea about.

“It’s gives them the opportunity to experience something new,” Drake said. “And they are doing it in a different culture and in a different environment.”

Martha added: “I get to challenge myself. Even if it is hard sometimes.”

What’s difficult is finding a frown on the court. If everyone in youth sports were as giddy as this bunch, no youngster would be tethered to a video game.

But in addition to embracing pickleball, the players are absorbing life lessons as well.

“They are learning sportsmanship and we’re teaching them to be good sports,” Riedy said. “How you touch paddles with your opponent after you just played them in a match and that you always say, ‘Good game.’ It is really cool that they are getting that message.”

What’s clear is these youngsters don’t have a lot. What’s clear, as well, is that they are appreciative.

“These kids are wearing hand-me-downs and they have never done any of this,” Riedy said. “And to just see them completely happy, smiling and dancing on the court is special.

“We complain about things in our life, but they seem a little less meaningful when you see these kids. They went through so much just to get to this country and still they keep such a positive attitude.”

There’s a rule in pickleball that you stay out of the kitchen, meaning one’s getting too close to the net. We’re just thankful that Riedy didn’t avoid the church parking lot, the asphalt one that is amazingly blossoming with seeds of hope.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected] and follow him @jparis_sports.

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