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Women substance abuse patients use ‘tennis therapy’ through USTA Florida Foundation grant

When the women in WestCare’s substance use disorder program requested tennis as a new recreational leisure activity, the non-profit health and human services program teamed with the St. Petersburg Tennis Center and the USTA Florida Foundation to create a program now serving more than 50 players.

Last December the USTA Florida Foundation, the giving arm of the USTA Florida Section, granted WestCare $7,375 to expand its program originally launched in 2019 for a handful of players.

Responding to their clients’ wishes to play tennis, WestCare Senior Vice President and Chief Program and Service Officer Robert Neri, a long-time tennis player and USTA member, reached out to the nearby St. Petersburg Tennis Center. In partnership with Jack Bailey, general manager and director of the tennis center, the two collaborated on what would become the Rackets and Recovery program.

“Nearly all the female clients have experienced trauma, and many are part of an inter-generational cycle of substance abuse, violence, and trauma that WestCare’s treatment aims to break,” Neri said. “WestCare clients were asked for their input on new recreation and leisure activities, and many clients requested to learn to play tennis.”

The program has become so popular at WestCare that there is now a waitlist for those patients going through recovery and looking to participate as a part of their healing and coping treatment. The players in the program received the “full experience” once they were adopted by the St. Pete Tennis Center members, who donated shoes, clothing and other equipment to make the women feel at home on the court.

Tennis, according to Neri, enriches the women’s treatment experience and aids them in building the physical, mental, and emotional skills needed to achieve and sustain recovery. The program has also proven to be a model for other local community treatment centers, promoting healthy physical activity and an opportunity for the women to stay connected to tennis, and each other, once they exit the program.

Each player works with her coach to develop a personalized tennis progress plan that is similar to the personalized plans they encounter within their treatment.

“The emotional, mental, and physical skills required to play tennis mirror many of the same skills needed to be successful in the recovery journey,” Neri says. “With the belief that the tennis court can be a classroom, WestCare and the St. Petersburg Tennis Center anticipate that tennis lessons will continue to provide opportunities to develop skills crucial to achieving and sustaining long-term recovery and remaining crime-free.”

The need for the program is compelling.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports that more than 61 million Americans have a mental health and/or substance use disorder. In Florida, SAMHSA estimates that 1 in 13 people aged 12 or older needed treatment for a substance use disorder in 2017-2019, and 1 in 7 people ages 18-25 needed treatment for a SUD.

“Substance-free recreational activities, like this tennis program, engage treatment clients in sport and focus on physical activity and personal health, which can be a long-term deterrent to drug use,” Neri said. “Regular exercise, like tennis, has been proven to aid in the reduction of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other disorders.”

About the USTA Florida Foundation

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.

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