As pickleball gains in popularity, one Lehigh Valley high school is using the sport to connect with Allentown youth
THE MORNING CALL | APR 11, 2022 AT 11:02 AM
As they scrambled across the makeshift courts at Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays Elementary School, shrieks of excitement from students were mixed with the unmistakable sound of America’s fastest-growing sport expanding its footprint in the Lehigh Valley.
Plastic balls hitting plastic paddles created an echo in the gym, where 11 elementary school students learned the basics of pickleball side-by-side with students from Allentown Central Catholic High School.
The after-school program is part of Central City Project, in which ACCHS students from communities outside the city interact with local residents and organizations. The Central City Project began more than a decade ago in former teacher John Gribowich’s theology class. When Gribowich departed for the priesthood, Patrick Markham took the reigns in planning social outreach, mentoring, and arts and cultural opportunities.
It turns out that pickleball checks a lot of those boxes. “Pickleball is an easy sport to learn, and the pickleball program provides a great opportunity for the ACCHS students to have interaction with the Hays students,” Markham said. While Markham leads the program, the hands-on teaching of pickleball basics — like serving and volleying — is done by students such as sophomore Catherine Grubb and junior Tanner Temple.
“The cool thing is that the Central City Project comes here and it also goes to Sheridan Elementary,” Grubb said. “Being in the heart of the city for that outreach is nice.” Temple agreed, noting the kids “really seem to love it, and it’s something that people can get involved in at any age.”
While the game of pickleball is normally played on a small, rectangular court divided into two sides by a low net, the youngsters play with modified rules. There’s no kitchen (or non-volley zone) in front of the net, and the first side to reach 5 points wins (rather than 11), as the high school and elementary students team up in doubles action.
“I like making friends here and I like being able to play with everyone instead of playing with just one person,” said Kailey Arocho, a fifth-grader who said she practices pickleball outside of school and loves sports, including baseball.
For the kids who are sharing the court, it’s a sign of the times. The game is getting younger, according to USA Pickleball, with the strongest growth among players under 55. Across the Lehigh Valley, people play for competition and camaraderie at YMCAs, youth centers and repurposed tennis courts.
For Markham, who picked up the game during COVID-19, it’s much less about pickleball than it is about social skills and life lessons for all the kids involved in the Central City program. “A lot of our students at ACCHS come from the suburbs, and they’re getting that experience to serve those in need in Allentown,” Markham said. “When we started this, I talked to them and I said, ‘You have no idea what impact you’re going to have on these kids.’”
The impact so far has been noticeable and rewarding.
“Our first session in the fall at Sheridan Elementary was like six Thursdays in a row. At the end, for all the kids who stuck with it, we gave them a certificate and a gift card. And in some of these kids they saw an improvement in attendance, because on days they had pickleball they had to be there.
“We’re already planning for next year and it’s a very successful program,” Markham said. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s intergenerational.”