The Erskine Women’s Tennis Team traveled to Hilton Head in March for an exciting spring break trip, playing against several other college teams and defeating Tiffin University (Ohio) and Slippery Rock University.
But for sophomore Sarah McDonald and her teammates, a practice session in Walterboro during the trip was also a thrilling experience. It was there, on the courts where Sarah had gotten her start as a tennis player, that the team rendezvoused with a group of Cottageville Elementary School students, meeting their pen pals for the first time.
“It was an extra-special experience for me, because it was on the same courts where I first went to tennis camps when I was four and where I played my high school matches,” Sarah said.
When the team began discussing the need for a new service project at the beginning of the academic year, “We tossed around several ideas, but we really wanted to do something with kids,” Sarah said. “Other groups from Erskine participate in various things with local schools, so we wanted to do something of our own and unique.”
Sarah’s mother, Tracy McDonald, serves as principal of Cottageville Elementary School. When team members decided they liked the idea of a project involving children, she was in a position to help.
“My mom, along with the guidance counselor at her school, selected 14 girls, two for each girl on the tennis team,” Sarah said. The girls were chosen based on specific criteria.
The Pen Pal project has been a boon for both groups.
“On top of writing letters back and forth with us about twice a month, they also met to learn about various topics to help them become more well rounded individuals,” Sarah said of the elementary school students.
Tracy McDonald called the pen pal project “a great experience” for the young girls.
“It is amazing how just something as simple as a letter can change the outlook of a person,” she said. “The girls always enjoyed their ‘mail days.’”
Sarah said the project has been “a blessing to them…a blessing to our team as well.”
Team members were delighted to receive gifts from their pen pals. “Near the end of last semester, with help from my mom, the girls sent us exam care packages with snacks, goodies, encouragement, and a t-shirt from Cottageville Elementary School,” Sarah said.
When the fall semester was finished and Sarah went home for Christmas break, she delivered Erskine t-shirts to the girls, Christmas gifts from Women’s Tennis Coach Calhoun Parr and the team.
“On days that they have ‘dress down’ days and do not have to wear their uniform, my mom says that almost all of them wear their Erskine shirts,” Sarah said.
Sarah and her teammates are surprised by some of the results of their project.
“Before we started writing letters to these girls, I had no idea how much they would look up to us, and how much it meant to them,” Sarah said. “We have really become role models to these girls.”
Coach Parr is proud of his team’s tennis performance but he is also happy about what they accomplish off the courts. Speaking about the Cottageville Elementary pen pals, he said, “This has really had a positive impact on the kids.”
Sarah was proud when one of her pen pals was named to the honor roll for the first time.
As for the rest of the pen pals, she said, “Many of them are now interested in going to college to further their education…which is awesome!”
The pen pal who made the honor roll promised Sarah that she would “keep studying and working hard in school to keep her grades up.”
Some tennis players may be continuing the pen pal project even after the semester ends, at the request of their young friends. “Many of them have asked to keep writing over the summer to keep in touch,” Sarah said.
In a related development, Sarah said all the elementary students in the pen pal group “have now shown an interest in learning to play tennis, which is exciting to me because it is a sport that I am so passionate about.”
Sarah said her mother had originally planned to bring the elementary students to a match at the end of the year, but the dates did not work out.
“So, on our way to Hilton Head for our annual spring break tennis trip, we were able to meet the girls at the tennis courts in Walterboro and have a practice,” she said.
On the tennis courts in Walterboro, when the pen pals met, the Erskine players wore their Cottageville Elementary t-shirts. “We took lots of pictures,” Sarah said, “and they cheered for us while we practiced.”
After the practice, the young girls stretched with the Erskine team members, and then they all went out to eat together.
“I hope we can continue to keep in touch with them and remain positive role models in their lives,” Sarah said. It’s amazing to be able to use the talents that we have been given to give back to the community.”