Employee Spotlight: How a Personal Journey Became a Passion for Empowerment Through Wheelchair Tennis

Jul 20, 2018

Each month, we shine a light on a Points of Light employee who is making a difference in their community. These stories of service highlight the individual volunteer efforts of our dedicated staff, what motivated them to get involved and how service has inspired them.

Rob Popelka prepares the tennis court for Wheelchair Tennis Atlanta clinic attendees.

From time cards to the tennis court, Robert Popelka lives into the values of volunteering and service, both inside and outside his office walls. Rob first joined Points of Light in 2013 as a skills-based volunteer with human resources; today, he works as the director of payroll and finance reporting in our Atlanta office. Rob’s commitment to our mission is too great to go unnoticed, and he has become a light in the Atlanta community through his love of wheelchair tennis, inspiring and empowering players who are able to connect under his humble leadership.

While searching for activities in Atlanta, Rob became an active participant in numerous wheelchair tennis groups and, in 2013, created his Facebook page, “Wheelchair Tennis Atlanta.” The page has evolved from a resource for connectivity and awareness, to a growing network of volunteers and players, bringing people of all ages together to get new players started with wheelchair tennis.

Rob has turned his own personal journey into a source of light for others in the community. He is an inspiring coworker; a radiating force of positivity. We spoke with Rob to learn more about Wheelchair Tennis Atlanta and his dedication to improving others’ lives through volunteerism:

What was your first volunteer experience?

I have done a lot of different volunteering over the years in different areas that interest me. I spent years volunteering at Atlanta Humane Society walking dogs before my injury, and scheduled spay and neutering after injury. I also taught English as a second language for a year with a group in Decatur, Georgia. I have been involved in peer support at Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital since my rehabilitation. I now get called in to talk to new patients, and act as a resource for them to ask questions or just tell their stories.

What inspired you to get involved with Wheelchair Tennis Atlanta?

In late 2010, I found out that I had a tumor in my spinal cord. It was the absolute scariest thing to hear a doctor say. I was in a rush to have it removed. I walked into surgery, but I didn’t walk out. I wasn’t able to return to my job and went into a rehabilitation hospital. With all that had happened, I was in a very dark, depressed place learning about life as a paraplegic. I searched for activities to pass some time and stumbled upon a wheelchair tennis league. I was absolutely amazed to see all these people playing competitive tennis in wheelchairs. The fact that these people could push a chair with a racket in their hand, hit a ball and make it look so easy just drew me in. I found it very difficult to get started in the sport. (Chairs are custom fit, they aren’t readily available, and cost around $2000 each.) I was absolutely awful when I started, but I was in love with it. As I improved, I wanted to make this sport more accessible to others and bring awareness to it. I just hope it can do for others what it did for me. I credit wheelchair tennis with lifting me out of depression.

How has your work with Wheelchair Tennis Atlanta evolved over time?

I started Wheelchair Tennis Atlanta as a Facebook page just to bring awareness to the sport and to reach out to new players. It just kept growing from there. I decided to schedule my own clinics. I begged and borrowed chairs in order to hold my clinics. I would get pieces of chairs and put them back together for my clinics. I wrote grants to get some better instruction than I could offer. I reached out to courts to donate court time. I eventually wrote grants to purchase some new chairs. I now have seven chairs from kids’ size to XXL. We hold at least 14 free clinics a year. I have an army of volunteers that help with everything from tossing balls, picking up balls, hitting with experienced players, bringing food and drinks, and much more. 

Volunteers and wheelchair tennis clinic participants come together after a successful day on the court.

What is your favorite part about the wheelchair tennis clinics you host in the spring and fall each year?

Anytime I get in my sports chair is a liberating experience. My hope is to bring that same feeling to new players. Most new players are amazed at how different they are from everyday chairs. I enjoy seeing the look on a new player’s face when they hit a good ball. I’m also always amazed at the volunteers who show up to help who have no ties to spinal injuries or other groups of players. It’s just a very positive experience for everyone involved.

Tell us about your work with Shepherd Center and how you became involved in their clinics.

I guess I have developed a reputation as a wheelchair tennis resource (which I always laugh at because I consider myself an introvert and a very average player). My friends all point people in my direction if someone hints at being interested in tennis. The occupational and sports therapists who put on the clinics reached out to me and asked if I would help. After the first one, I kind of took over the clinic and have been doing it for them whenever I’m available. It is so rewarding to see a patient who has this insurmountable obstacle in front of them put a smile on their face and try to hit a tennis ball. My other favorite part of these clinics is to put their family members in a sports chair and have them try it as well.

Side note: I talked enough about tennis to the Shepherd Center recreational therapy that they actually got funding to start a tennis team this year, so we now have more lessons available!

What have you learned through your experience as a volunteer and leader?

I think the biggest lesson is you never know how or where your actions will make an impact. Someone is always listening and watching even when you don’t know it. I just try to be positive and upbeat about my passions. A few minutes of time can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

Has your experience with volunteer service influenced and/or affected your career? If so, how?

I actually believe I wound up at Points of Light because I was running my mouth about tennis.  Volunteer service can be an excellent networking opportunity as you surround yourself with people who have the same passion and similar interests. It also helps provide a work-life balance.

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?

I don’t really think of this as giving back because I feel like I benefit as much, if not more, than the people who come out. It’s an activity I enjoy and if it helps someone in the process, that’s just awesome. 

What advice do you have for others who are looking for ways to get involved in their communities?

You don’t have to be an expert to get involved. Follow your passions and you may become someone people see as an expert before you even realize it.

Want to make a difference in your community? Visit www.allforgood.org to find local opportunities to get involved.

Madi Donham