Serving Up A Difference

Above: Mary King, Cackie Billman, Symmes Johnson, Ellen Stubbs, Marnie Ochoa, Anna Curley, Spencer Moorman, and Kelly Isaacs.

VIPS Annual Tennis Ball and Tournament helps blind and visually impaired children

Story by Lisa Hornung

Photos by Andrea Hutchinson

This weekend, tennis players and fans will have a chance to serve a little extra money to a good cause at the seventh annual VIPS Tennis Ball and Tennis Tournament. The weekend-long event is the main fundraiser for Visually Impaired Preschool Services for Kentucky and Indiana.

The Tennis Ball, which takes place Saturday evening at the Louisville Boat Club, is the main party, where guests dress in cocktail attire and enjoy an evening with dinner, dancing, drinks and a silent and live auction. On Saturday and Sunday, doubles teams will compete in two divisions, round-robin style, and the winners will be announced Sunday afternoon. There will also be an auction and cocktail party at the end of the tournament. The tournament was awarded “Special Tennis Event of the Year” by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Southern in 2016.

VIPS previously held other fundraisers in years past, but none endured like the tennis competition, said Dani Harper, VIPS development coordinator. There had been a tennis tournament for many years, but former board President Jay Hatcher, a tennis player and Louisville Boat Club member, took it to the next level. He invited his friends to play and obtained some corporate sponsorships to help make it the premier fundraiser for the organization. The ball was added as a way to allow families and players to cut loose while encouraging further donations to the organization.

During the day, the players take the game seriously but still enjoy themselves. “It’s a really fun day,” Harper said. “Players come out and get lunch provided, cocktails, mimosas and Bloody Marys.”

Most of the funds raised by the event will pay teachers for the visually impaired who go to the homes of children who have been diagnosed with a visual impairment. VIPS sends these interventionists out as soon as possible after diagnosis to help the parents understand how to help their children meet all of their important milestones. “For a lot of our families, the first blind person they’ve ever met is their own child,” Harper said. “Their child is born blind, and they are at a loss for what to do.”

Symmes Johnson and Ellen Stubbs.

Studies have shown that 85 percent of the foundation of early learning happens in the first five years of life, and 90 percent of what a child learns is through their vision, Harper said. Therefore, knowing how to help a blind or visually impaired child learn is critical to their ability to function.

To illustrate how visually impaired kids learn, Executive Director Diane Nelson gave an example: “If you point to a tree, and say ‘tree,’ a child sees a tree, that it grows out of the ground, it has grass around it and it has roots. Big or small, leaves are on the branches and leaves fall off and change colors, or maybe it’s evergreen. Your kids get all of that about the world because you said one word to them. So when our parents say the word tree, it means nothing because there’s no perspective of that. We teach our parents how to take something in the environment and how to teach (their kids) to learn audibly, tactually and with smell, like in our sensory garden. That’s kind of the challenge for our parents.”

VIPS also has a preschool in Louisville where visually impaired students can learn in a safe and optimal environment for them. Harper said only about 40 children use the daily preschool, but about 650 kids throughout the two states use the visiting teachers. Many students graduate from the preschool and attend typical schools, but some go on to the Kentucky School for the Blind to receive a little more help.

Maddie Horlander, age five, is about to graduate from VIPS and begin kindergarten at St. Francis of Assisi with her older sister, Ava, age seven. Her mom, Kristin, said Maddie has ocular motor apraxia, which means her eyes don’t move from side to side as quickly as the rest of ours do. Horlander noticed that her daughter was shaking her head in a figure-eight motion when Maddie was only a few months old. Doctors told her it was a habit or a self-soothing action, but Horlander wasn’t convinced. She eventually took Maddie to see a neurologist and then an opthamologist, who diagnosed her at age two. Soon after while looking for guidance, she called Maddie’s physical therapist, who immediately said, “Oh, VIPS!”

Maddie began preschool at VIPS at age three, and now her mom is the assistant preschool director.

“VIPS has been beyond a blessing for our family,” Horlander said. “They made Maddie feel at home, and they have helped Maddie become the strong, loving and independent little girl that she is today. VIPS gave her strength by teaching her how to scan her environment and how to get around by herself. They taught her how to be independent by advocating for herself and teaching her what her visual impairment is. She can now tell people ‘I have ocular motor apraxia,’ and she can vocalize what she needs help with in order to see better.”

But the journey hasn’t been easy. They’ve recently encountered children – and even adults – who mocked Maddie for shaking her head.

“It has been extremely hard for us, especially myself,” she said, “because we’ve always taught our kiddos åß… that’s not what you do. And no mom wants their child to be made fun of.”

Horlander turned to VIPS for advice about what to do when Maddie is mocked. “We decided that if this happens again, we’re going to say, ‘Oh, we see that you’re shaking your head like Maddie. It’s because she has a vision impairment, and Maddie, can you please tell them what your visual impairment is?’ I mean, it’s a hard situation. You don’t want to sound mean about it, but you want them to know that she’s shaking her head for a reason. She’s not shaking her head because she wants to. This is something that’s not voluntary.”

Symmes Johnson serving.

VIPS is a unique agency, one that other states and even countries around the world are looking to for guidance, Nelson said. Teachers have traveled from around the world to Louisville to see what VIPS does for the families of visually impaired kids.

“In the industry, we’re well-known, but we’re not well-known in Louisville,” Nelson said. “But Louisville is such a philanthropic city that I don’t think we could have started anywhere else.” She said families have moved to Louisville from all over the country so that their children can receive the services they need. In fact, the Indiana branch began because one mother was driving her child to the VIPS preschool daily from Bloomington, and eventually decided to open an office in Indiana.

The Tennis Ball fundraiser will help those children receive much-needed aid, Nelson said. “We don’t need things,” Nelson said. “We need a teacher going to a home soon after a mother and father are told by their doctor that their child is blind, and help them work through the process of grief, to get through that, to the understanding that their child is going to be just fine. They are just going to learn in a different way.” Last year, VIPS teachers traveled more than 150,000 miles around Kentucky and Indiana.

Nelson said they had a parent recently say, sadly, “I had a dream of my child playing golf with me.”

“(To this) we were able to say, ‘Well come on out to our golf tournament and you can meet our blind golfer’,” Nelson said. “It’s not a broken dream; it’s just that your child will play golf in a different way. That’s what (Tennis Ball attendees and donors) are funding. They’re funding hope for families and understanding for families that their child has a different ability and not just a disability. That’s what most of the money goes for in the operation.”

Nelson said the Hadley School for the Blind even has blind tennis players. The ball makes a sound, and the players learn to hit it.

Tennis player Ellen Stubbs looks forward to the event this weekend. She became involved because her fiance, Steve Huey, is a supporter of VIPS, and she plays tennis in several tournaments. This is her fifth year playing in the VIPS tournament.

“Every year, I try and get at least four teams to join the tournament,” Stubbs said. “I recruit ladies that I play USTA with, getting them to join the cause and donate for a great charity.” She and Huey go to the ball, too. “We have a table and fill the table with people who will help, bid on items and donate. Then the following day, Sunday, I’ll actually try and get people to come out and support, and maybe even donate a little bit more.”

The VIPS preschool is also open to some typically sighted children, which helps the visually impaired children learn to navigate the world around them in which they will be the minority and will have to advocate for themselves. “The sighted children learn empathy and that not all people are just like them,” Harper said.

“I think it’s really elevated the program that we have here,” she continued, “because some of the kids are blind and need a cane to walk with and they read Braille, but some of our kids (have) multiple challenges, and there are children who might be in a wheelchair. So, a child who is typically sighted, they come in here and they learn that a friend in a wheelchair isn’t a different thing. When they encounter someone out in the real world who is in a wheelchair, it’s like, ‘Oh, my friend in school is also in a wheelchair.’ It’s teaching them that acceptance. It’s a very inclusive program we have here.”

Kristin Horlander can’t say enough good things about what VIPS has done for her family. She will be speaking at the Tennis Ball and telling her family’s story.

Though they are excited to see Maddie going to St. Francis next year, Horlander will still work at VIPS. Leaving her management job after 18 years was difficult, but she said it’s the best decision she ever made.

“VIPS is always going to have a special place in our hearts,” she said. “I’m never going to be able to give them the thanks that they absolutely deserve because they have done so much for us. And not only my immediate family, but from the grandparents to my brothers and sisters. I mean, they just see how far Maddie has come.” VT

Despite some heavy damage from this February’s floods, the Louisville Boat Club will host the Tennis Ball and Tournament this weekend, and the club expects the facilities will be completely ready.

Andrew Tkach, club manager, said fresh clay is going down on the courts, and the ball is going to take place on the second floor, which didn’t see any flood damage.

“I’m proud of how our staff has responded to this,” Tkach said. “They’ve done a fantastic job.”

The Louisville Boat Club has now hosted the event for seven years.

“The boat club is an excellent host,” said Ellen Stubbs, who attends every year. “They always provide just a great atmosphere, and it’s a lot of fun, with beautiful courts and a great location.”

VIPS Tennis Ball

6:30 p.m. May 19

VIPS Tennis Tournament

1 p.m. May 20

Ball and Tournament held at

Louisville Boat Club

4200 River Road



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