It’s not often when someone can combine their passions with their work, but it’s a pleasure Julia Barney of Indialantic enjoys daily working for The Parker Foundation for Autism and Child Development.
“The mission of The Parker Foundation is to use education, sports and the arts as avenues to enrich the lives of and bridge the gap between children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, related disabilities, their families and the community in which we live,” says Barney, who serves as The Parker Foundation’s Director. “We partner with existing facilities and operate free, adaptive and inclusive programs that serve families and have global impact on our larger community.”
Barney has assisted The Parker Foundation in regularly holding Speak Through Sports, a program that provides children the opportunity to be part of a team, experience any sports or activities they have an interest in, and helps build self-confidence and improve motor skills. Throughout the year, Barney helps facilitate Speak Through Sports adaptive tennis clinics and has successfully partnered with the USTA Florida Section Foundation since 2017 on growing the opportunities for children with autism in the local tennis community.
“Our underserved population, without access to sports programs or lessons, along with families of children with autism or related disabilities, are at a tremendous disadvantage since less programming exist for them currently,” says Barney. “My favorite part of working with the children of The Parker Foundation is being able to coordinate all of the resources available in our community to make daily life better for their families.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic halted the Foundation’s plans to offer their in-person Speak Through Sports tennis program this year, they quickly adapted to offer virtual tennis clinics. Barney says there were several challenges, but the transition only took two weeks thanks to outside support.
“With the support of Lisa Pugliese of Love Serving Autism and the team at USTA Florida, we developed new plans that allowed us to offer virtual options for our families,” shares Barney. “We would have been unable to provide these free resources had it not been for USTA Florida, LSA and our network of volunteer players and coaches that stepped up to join us in pioneering these efforts!”
The partnerships and online-only offerings on Zoom and Facebook Live helped the organization flourish. The athletes took the transition seamlessly, creating a weekly social opportunity for them to show off their skills and progression from week to week.
“Our students look forward to these virtual tennis sessions not only for the skills development but the social interaction that can only be obtained in programs such as these for a child with autism,” says Barney.
Going virtual also gave The Parker Foundation the ability to connect with young tennis players throughout the region who had heard about their programs but lived too far away to participate.
“While the virtual platform is not a perfect fit for all children on the autism spectrum, we are very thrilled we’ve been able to provide consistency for our tennis families and have experienced a larger reach bringing in families from all over the state who wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise,” Barney shares.
Barney’s enthusiasm to bring tennis to children within and outside The Parker Foundation is sparked by her own interest in the sport. She started playing at the age of 10 and has continued to play recreationally throughout her non-profit career.
“Wimbledon was always on the television in our house growing up,” she recalls. “Now that I’m older I understand what a fantastic sport tennis can be over a lifetime.”
Her absolute favorite part of the sport is that kids can play, learn and grow in the sport together. While working for The Parker Foundation she has watched as the older, junior players serve as role models for the younger ones through the organization’s “Be a Buddy” volunteer program.
“Once they are shown the fundamentals, the sky’s the limit on their capabilities with this sport,” she states.
Barney’s dedication to tennis and children with autism or related disabilities has allowed The Parker Foundation to partner with community organizations, businesses, volunteers and skilled coaches to operate more programs specially designed for underserved populations. She recognizes that the youth of today look to adults as role models and the passion, service and energy they see can propel them to develop interests and join clubs, groups or activities they may not have considered otherwise.
“It is amazing to see a parent watch their child try a new sport and succeed,” grins Barney. “It’s even more compelling to see a child with autism growing in confidence and social interaction through one of our programs.”
USTA Florida thanks Julia Barney for her dedication to expanding tennis programming for children with autism and related disabilities in Brevard and the surrounding counties.
Birthplace: Lake Forest, Illinois
Family: Husband: Kevin Barney, Children: Courtney Russo of Boca Raton, Morgan Barney (19), Amelia Tosi (15), Landon Barney (13), Dominic Tosi (11), Angelina Tosi (8) – all tennis players in Florida!
Favorite Movie: Say Anything
Favorite Food: Pesto
Favorite Travel Spot: Massachusetts
Favorite Shot: Serve
My earliest tennis memory was… “Walking to the neighborhood tennis courts at our local park with my best friend and learning to play with her!”
If I could play tennis with three people, they would be… “Melissa Parker, Co-Founder The Parker Foundation for Autism and Child Development – we haven’t played tennis yet together and this is one of her favorite sports! Serena and Venus, and of course, my moms Jean Haskell and Claire Michaels who have the most amazing tennis court in their backyard in Connecticut!”
When I am not playing tennis I am… “Working full-time as Director of The Parker Foundation for Autism and Child Development, raising our family of 6 along with my husband Kevin and owner of Fifth Avenue Bridal, a designer bridal boutique in Indialantic.”
My best tennis memory is… “The first adaptive tennis clinic sponsored by Revolution Technologies LLC held at Kiwi Tennis Club in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida 2016.”
I like to volunteer in tennis because… “Working with volunteers, pros, the USTA and connecting all of us to serve a population that is often looked over and set aside is incredibly meaningful. Children with autism and their families deserve programming in sports that is adaptive and inclusive, and it is not difficult to build a program that meets their needs and even diversifies your offerings, it just takes heart.”
Interested in volunteering in tennis? Visit www.USTAFlorida.com/Volunteers to learn more about available opportunities.