As a former professional athlete, Louise Pleming knows better than most how tennis can bring people together.
Pleming broke through to the top level in tennis in the early 1980s and spend close to two decades travelling the globe on the international circuit. In retirement, she became a full-time commentator and has coached some of Australia's brightest talents, including Jelena Dokic and Shellharbour's Ellen Perez.
It's been a journey that has provided Pleming with plenty of ups and downs, but also provided with her an opportunity to make a real difference in the community.
In 2020, she became the brainchild of the Rally4Ever program following a chance meeting with a homeless man, Brian Turton, at a shelter where she volunteered. Turton showed great promise in tennis, but had experienced mental health issues which hindered his hopes of a professional career.
Rally4Ever is a free tennis program which aims to help people improve their mental wellbeing and connect with their community through the sport. Rally4Ever has been set up throughout Australia, with sessions now arriving in the Illawarra.
The program is run every Tuesday morning at Beaton Park.
"It's all about connecting to the community and giving programs to under-served communities, and to people who might be feeling a little low in life and struggling with their social connection," Pleming told the Mercury.
"One of the biggest things that we've really connected to are people who are feeling lonely and isolated. I think COVID started that conversation and we're just trying to alleviate the pressures and help people that are in that situation - where they've lost their confidence a little bit - to get out and exercise.
"A lot of people don't think like they're good enough to be in group exercise programs if they're struggling with their low mood or with depression or anxiety. So it's all about creating an environment that's a safe place where they feel accepted.
"There's no judgement, it's all about inclusiveness. The way we structure the program, it suits all levels of play."
Rally4Ever has been brought to Wollongong thanks to support from numerous local program partners, include Vinnies Vans, Hope Street Community Centre, Catholic Education Diocese of Wollongong and Marketing Academics from the University of Wollongong.
Pleming singled out Catholic Education Diocese of Wollongong's Robyn Gallagher in particular for her tireless work.
"She's been amazing, she's been the person that's pulled all of the organisations together and brings the awareness to what we do, and gets all of the stakeholders ready," she said.
"We've been out together to all of the different organisations and the welfare organisations to show them what we do and help alleviate that stress. Most people are a little intimidated about going out and playing tennis, but we're very low key and it's very much focused on having fun.
"It's about making people feel like they fit in and get all of the benefits of exercise."
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