For the third time, 8-year-old Emily Chanthavisay ran to the corner of the tennis court to throw the ball over the fence and into the inaccessible bushes. But 14-year-old Emma Peplow anticipated and intercepted the move just in time.
With the same expression of patience and understanding she displayed for the past hour, the Newport Harbor High School freshman guided the young child back to the center of the court and continued the lesson of hitting the ball over the net.
Emma coordinates her tennis lessons for Down syndrome children through the Down Syndrome Assn. of Orange County. This was just another day on the courts with her students. The lessons were her idea and her solo project.
It is unusual for volunteers to come to the association with an idea for a new program and then run it themselves, according the association’s director of community relations, Kellie Perez.
But the concept wasn’t unusual to Emma.
She was inspired by her older sister, Paige Peplow, who started dance classes for Down syndrome children two years ago when she was 14.
Perez said when she first met Paige she was impressed with the idea of dance classes she pitched, but was also slightly skeptical.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see how long this lasts,’” Perez said.
It’s been two years, and Paige said she is planning to continue them until she graduates. She said she plans to open her own studio one day and continue to teach dance.
“The parents tell me the girls practice at home. ‘They can’t stop dancing and twirling around.’ That’s really the best part,” Paige said.
Both Paige and Emma are earning community service hours required to graduate from Newport-Mesa Unified schools. But both viewed the requirement as an opportunity.
“I wanted to do something that was important to me and to other people,” Paige said.
The idea of focusing on children with Down syndrome was sparked while spending time with a family friend, Lauren.
When Paige spent time with Lauren, she naturally shared her love of dancing.
“I saw how much she loved dancing, and I thought it would be so fun to teach them,” Paige said.
Lauren’s parents connected Paige with the Down Syndrome Assn. She set up classes at Endeavor School of the Arts in Costa Mesa, where she studies.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I had never taught little kids before. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to take control.”
And she couldn’t.
“Before the first class, I made a plan, picked songs and exercises. I expected them to understand so quickly,” she said. “It’s definitely harder than you think.”
She said she had to go back and reevaluate to figure out where to start.
When Emma decided to share her love for tennis, she made sure to get some tips from the experts. She has, at the most, five students at a time and sometimes splits the classes according to ability.
Though she had watched her big sister’s dance classes, as well as some professional caregivers, she too found she had to learn some tactics on the fly.
“In the beginning I planned to come in with a time table and that things would go exactly as planned,” she said. “It didn’t end up working like that.”
The Tennis Club in Newport Beach donates a court to Emma for one or two hours nearly every Saturday during the school semester.
When Emma asked the club about using it for her lessons, the staff was happy to oblige. She said they were excited about it and they didn’t charge any teaching fees or for teacher supplies.
Endeavor School of the Arts in Costa Mesa also agreed to help by donating a room for Paige to use to teach dance for about an hour on Saturdays.
Emma said she no longer comes in with a set lesson plan but relies on repetition and routine — as well as an understanding that she has to be on a lookout for what works to ensure the kids are having fun.
The positive attitude is what keeps Emily’s mom, Manivone Chanthavisay, making the drive to Newport Beach from Anaheim.
Chanthavisay said it is hard to find activities for her daughter with people who understand her.
“Emma is very patient,” Manivone Chanthavisay said. “That is hard to find.”
Parents like Chanthavisay can find programs like those taught by Emma and Paige through the Down Syndrome Assn.'s website.
Perez said many parents come to the association because they are looking for a place to feel welcome.
She said she took her daughter to a ballet class when she was young, but the woman there said, “I don’t know if this is the right place for her.”
She said after multiple times of hearing this sort of thing, a parent is just looking for someplace to belong.
“This allows parents and children to know there’s a place for them,” Perez said. “They don’t have to worry about feeling left out.”
Of course, Emma and Paige get a little something out of holding the classes. Both said they love seeing the joy in the kids’ faces.
“The best part is knowing they are so excited partially because of me,” Paige said. “I instilled that love of dance in them.”