Love Serving Autism, USTA Florida Foundation Team to Expand Tennis for Autistic Children
The USTA Florida Foundation, the giving arm of the non-profit USTA Florida Section, announced in December 2021 a $4,450 grant to Love Serving Autism, an organization that provides specialized therapeutic tennis instruction in more than 30 Florida locations to autistic children and adults, expanding its services in West Palm Beach.
Love Serving Autism expands life skills, especially functional communication, through multidisciplinary specialized therapeutic tennis instruction to increase independence of individuals with autism spectrum disorders and developmental challenges. The grant funds will be used to provide scholarships for low-income athletes and equip the program with youth rackets, red-dot balls for beginner play and other learning aides.
Program founder Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix has grown program offerings not only across Florida, but to six other states stretching from the Midwest to the East Coast. In March of this year, she took the stage at the national 2022 USTA Annual Meeting and Conference, held at the Disney Beach and Yacht Club in Orlando, Fla., to accept the Eve Kraft Community Service Award, the USTA’s highest volunteer honor, during the “Celebration of Community Champions” luncheon.
A former professional on the WTA tour, Pugliese-LaCroix after suffering a career-ending back injury attended graduate school and received a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders from Florida Atlantic University, becoming a speech-language pathologist. In August 2016 she founded Love Serving Autism, combining her tennis experience and speech therapy background.
The Eve Kraft Community Service Award follows honors for Pugliese-LaCroix such as the USTA Florida Outstanding Diversity Achievement Award in 2018, and being selected as the Adaptive Tennis Champion of the Year by Racquet Sports Industry Magazine.
Love Serving Autism and tennis is filling a gap for parents finding it difficult to get their children participating in community-based group sports that cater to special-needs individuals. Tennis provides autistic children and adults with physical and cognitive developmental tools, building self-esteem through peer interaction and socialization.
“Love Serving Autism at West Palm Beach will provide local families with structured environment for their athletes to improve their tennis skills, communication skills, and social skills in a group setting,” Pugliese-LaCroix says. “Athletes will spend 45 minutes to an hour with peers, volunteers, and a coach working together to enhance their skills and overcome some challenges they may have, whether it is behavioral, social-emotional, speech, or a combination.”
Autism rates have risen every year since they were first tracked in 2000, and increasingly touch families in Florida and across the U.S. In 2021 the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2018 data. While one in 116 girls are identified with autism, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism.
Love Serving Autism currently lists programs for children, some cities with multiple sites, in Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Cocoa Beach, Coral Springs, Delray Beach, Gainesville, Greenacres, Jupiter, Orlando, Palm Beach Gardens, Plantation, Pensacola, Port St. Lucie, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, Wellington, West Palm Beach, Vero Beach and Zephyrhills. Adult programs are held in Boynton Beach, Lake Worth, Miami, Palm Beach Gardens, Sunrise, and West Palm Beach.
“Love Serving Autism (LSA) has provided autistic families with a sense of community over the past six years,” Pugliese-LaCroix says. “Expanding LSA to West Palm Beach will allow families with an athlete on the spectrum an opportunity gain build relationships with peers outside of the school setting, improve in various executive functioning skills, and increase their knowledge and skills on the tennis court.”
The program will receive additional participants this spring when Pugliese-LaCroix will partner with a specialized school for children with autism for training and the implementation of adaptive sports. Athletes will be transported to Gaines Park in West Palm Beach for various after-school recreational activities.
“Early intervention is important to me,” Pugliese-LaCroix says. “Additionally, we focus on equipping parents or guardians with the tools needed to better provide a safe, loving, and healthy space for their children.”
To learn more about Love Serving Autism, or to volunteer, go to loveservingautism.org.
About USTA Florida Foundation Grants
With a mission of “Changing Lives through Tennis,” the USTA Florida Foundation provides financial support to organizations that help people of all ages and abilities improve their health and quality of life through the great game of tennis. Grants offer funding for youth tennis programs, adaptive tennis programs for those with special needs, community tennis programs in economically challenged areas, along with facility assistance in the renovation, refurbishment and building of quality public tennis facilities. To learn more or to apply for a grant, go to ustafloridafoundation.com.