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Evangel tennis team takes athletic ministry trip to Padova, Italy

August 22, 2013 | Ian Richardson

The Evangel University women’s tennis team spent the final days of July serving – in more ways than one.

A group of 13 traveled from Evangel to Padova, Italy for 10 days in July to host a weeklong Vacation Bible School through International Church Fellowship. Through the VBS, they ministered to immigrant children from the Philippines and Nigeria who attend the church’s English school and daycare.

“These children just needed love and attention,” says sophomore Jenna Elliott. “They loved to be played with and talked to. They often would hold onto us and hug us. It was very touching to know that we were a blessing to them.”

The group included Head Coach Debbie De Almeida; Volunteer Assistant Coach Ben Whitacre and his wife, Mary; Athletic Ministry Coordinator Chad Gehring and his wife, Emily; players Ali Sivinski, Jenna Elliott, Kelly Bush and Kailey Roland; Jenna’s Parents Boyd and Trish Elliott; Kelly’s mother, Debbie Bush; and Hannah Arnzen, the team’s back pack journalist.

Italy VBSThe trip was organized through The Evangel Athletics Ministry (TEAM), which works to provide Evangel’s sports teams with opportunities to combine their athletic endeavors with cross-cultural ministry opportunities. Coordinated by Athletic Ministry Director Chad Gehring, TEAM’s goal is to provide an opportunity at least once every four years for each athletic team to participate in a ministry or service trip. This was the first such trip for the tennis team.

“My goal with all of our TEAM trips is that our student athletes always gain an appreciation that their gifts and talents on the field of play can be used by God as effective ministry tools”, says Gehring.

“We want each trip to have a blend of athletic opportunities and cultural experiences.”

The 13-member group split into four sections to oversee the different activities at the VBS: snacks, crafts, theater and games.

“All of us had the opportunity to minister,” De Almeida says. “Not only did the team work as a team, but when we were able to take one step back and allow the parents to be part of our ministry, I think it was a powerful connection for the parents to work alongside their children.”

De Almeida says she enjoyed seeing how the experience challenged each player with leadership roles and allowed each of them to grow as a result.

“It was fun for me to see them develop those relationships with kids,” De Almeida says, “and for it not to be about tennis because that’s something that we’re used to seeing every day with each other, but being a team working in another realm.”

The students say the children had a significant impact on them.

“The kids we worked with truly changed my life,” Elliott says. “The children opened my eyes and showed me how much I want to adopt when I am older. I was able to love these children so much that it was hard to leave on our last day.”

Along with working at the VBS, the tennis team took the opportunity to net some playing experience on the international level at the Padova Tennis Club. They spent two afternoons and all day Saturday at the tennis club.

De Almeida says this experience provided the team with some valuable preseason practice.

“It was fun for me to see them interact with Italian players,” De Almeida says. “As a coach, it helped me with preseason – to ease in back into the reality of play beginning.”

Bush says that while they were playing, the girls had a unique opportunity when they met some Italian players who had not had any previous exposure to Christians.

“I didn’t expect the tennis aspect to be a big part of this trip,” Kelly Bush says, “but later finding out that we were the first Christians that they met made a big impact on me.”

De Almeida says that while the ministry was the priority of the trip, the cherry on top was the sightseeing. The group visited iconic locations such as an ancient coliseum in Verona, Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting. They rode on a gondola, ate gelato and walked the same streets that Galileo walked at the University of Padova.

“The students really got a great full-scale, full-circle experience,” De Almeida says.

The players and coach alike acknowledge that this trip, which was the first time overseas for some, has made a lasting impression.

“I had never been on a mission trip before,” Kelly Bush says. “I was worried at first and thought to myself, What if I don’t make an impact and what do I have to offer that makes me so special? But I learned that just being yourself and having a servant’s heart goes so far. I will never forget the smiles of the children and appreciate the outlook on life that they have.”

“I hope the team came away knowing that God can use them in mighty ways in any situation,” De Almeida says. “I’m excited that we were able to give them the gift of a memory of a lifetime. This will be a trip that they’ll never forget. This will be a team that they’ll never forget.”

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