MARBLEHEAD – On a Sunday afternoon in late July, the rain held off just enough so Gabriella Foley, 30, of Swampscott and others with disabilities could take their weekly tennis lesson from Matthew Jacobs outdoors on the Jewish Community Center’s courts.
As she went about her lesson, Foley proclaimed she was the “queen of tennis!”
Since last September, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Foley and three other adults with disabilities who get services through the Danvers-based human service agency Northeast Arc got free tennis lessons from Jacobs, 23, of Swampscott.
Jacobs volunteered his time to not only coach the group on their forehand, backhand and serve during 45-minute lessons, but to get them out to socialize, which he said has been especially hard for this population to do during the pandemic.
“This is an easy sport to distance,” Jacobs said, “and just be outside.” The group, he said, was passionate, and no matter the weather, two or three would show up on Sunday afternoons.
“He’s been great,” said Peter Cuffe as his daughter, Mary Cuffe, 26, of Marblehead took part in the group lesson on July 25 that also included Jacob Yellin, son of Marcy and Ben Yellin of Swampscott. Ben Yellin said his son also participates in Special Olympics tennis.
“Absolutely the best,” said Phyllis Foley. Her daughter has been doing sports at the JCC since she was 3, and takes part in recreation programs offered by Northeast Arc.
Mary Cuffe’s father said she has long been involved with Northeast Arc, which works with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities starting at a young age.
The parents said Jacobs has a knack for working with the group and he keeps them energized.
But this lesson was also a bittersweet one for them, as it was the next-to-last one before Jacobs heads off to California for a new job.
“It was a lifesaver for them,” said Suzanne Ryan, Northeast Arc’s director of volunteer services. Ryan knew Jacobs because he came to her a few of summers ago and offered to give lessons to those in the Arc’s STEP program for a brief stint when he was still in college.
They offered some lessons at the Danvers High tennis courts, but the program was limited due to transportation issues.
Last summer, Jacobs again reached out to Ryan to offer his services.
“He got in touch with me and said, ‘What do you think about this? Let’s keep it small, we are in the middle of COVID,’ ” Ryan said.
“We just thought it would be a great opportunity to get it going again, and there wasn’t a ton going on for COVID,” Jacobs said, “So we thought it might be a nice thing to get it going again for socializing.”
Jacobs said he got the idea to restart the group after he had given some tennis lessons to Jacob Yellin “and the bells kind of went off and then it was nice because I wanted to socialize, they wanted to socialize. It had been so brief in the summer that I had done it, [and it] was nice to kind of get it to where it was a pretty consistent, every Sunday type of thing.”
Ryan said she contacted several families who might be interested and the group got permission from the JCC through Membership Operations Director Andrew Dalton.
They began the lessons on the outdoor courts last September, and in December, Jacobs was able to secure time in the indoor gym.
There was a brief lull after the holidays, but they have continued with the lessons ever since. Matt even got his sister, Gillian Jacobs, 16, an incoming junior at Swampscott High, to help out.
“We just love him,” Ryan said. “We just love this guy.”
When Gabriella Foley was asked what she thought of Jacobs teaching her tennis, she said, “Good,” and that she was sad to see him go. “The best coach,” she said.
Mary Cuffe said Jacobs is “a good guy, you know,” and “it’s tough” when asked about Jacobs heading off to California.
“It’s awesome,” Jacob Yellin said of the tennis lessons with Jacobs.
“I’ve always just kind of enjoyed working and being with that group,” Jacobs said. “And I think I get a lot out of it, they get a lot out of it, and I think during COVID, especially for this age group, it’s pretty easy to get overlooked in terms of programming and stuff like that.”
Jacobs is a 2016 graduate of Swampscott High and a 2020 graduate of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles, where he was a double major in economics and psychology – and where he also played tennis.
“I’m a tennis guy, I guess, and then I just came back and I was teaching tennis here in the summer, and it all kind of fell into place for this group,” Jacobs said.
All good things must come to an end as Jacobs is moving to San Francisco to do consulting work. The group planned a popsicle party for its last lesson with him.
Jacobs said the tough part will be leaving the group behind, but his sister is hoping to keep them together, perhaps doing something else besides tennis, which she doesn’t play. Jacobs is optimistic about seeing the group for impromptu get-togethers when he visits during the holidays.
Jacobs said he felt he accomplished what he set out to do, “because they like each other and they are having fun and socializing, and that’s a lot more important than the tennis,” Jacobs said.