UA Communication Services
The trip from Eugene to Tucson stretches 1,340 miles, but the journey is often much longer. For Arizona men’s tennis assistant coach Arron Spencer, the trek between the two Pac-12 towns took him halfway across the world.
Growing up just minutes away from the University of Oregon, Spencer became a hometown standout for the Ducks tennis program, ranking as high as fifth nationally in doubles and competing in the 2004 NCAA tournament.
After four years of collegiate competition and a subsequent term as a private tennis instructor, Spencer was ready for something different.
He and a college friend started The Positive Change Project. It began as nothing more than a website aimed at promoting chivalry.
“It just challenged people every day to do something positive, like to open a door for someone, or to compliment someone. Just simple things we’re all raised to do.” Spencer said. “The more we talked about it, we decided to just go big and do something more.”
And “go big” they did.
Spencer and wife Lauren sold all their belongings and flew to South Africa with a mere $50 in the organization’s bank account. Without a clear plan in mind, the couple went to stay with Spencer’s father-in-law, who owned a winery on the East Cape.
“In exchange for staying there I helped him with the vines, wines and all the farm work,” said Spencer. “He was able to help us start in South Africa instead of just a website.”
His philanthropy efforts exploded, transforming from encouraging pleasantries to helping those who may not survive otherwise.
“Our goal was to help with food, water and shelter for AIDS orphans,” Spencer said. “When we initially went we didn’t know what we were going to do so we met with schools and people that ran different organizations in the villages. We met a couple people that ran AIDS orphanages and it was small enough that we could start helping right away.”
Spencer assisted with water storage and making daily food drops; supplying the orphans with lunches of grains and fruits.
“We had planned on staying three months,” Spencer said. “The project was getting a head start and we loved it, so we extended our trip to a year. I did everything but tennis when I was over there.”
The itch for college tennis eventually reemerged towards the end of his year abroad, and Spencer found himself back in the states applying for positions with an ultimatum of returning to South Africa.
“We had one-way tickets back to South Africa,” said Spencer. “The day I would have gone back, I got the job at the College of Charleston. So I cancelled my flight and came back to college tennis. Had that not happened, I would’ve gone back to Africa for another year.”
Back in his natural environment armed with a fresh perspective, Spencer thrived as the assistant tennis coach for both men and womens’ teams at the College of Charleston. In his first season, both teams were crowned Southern Conference tournament champions and advanced to the 2012 NCAA tournament. In 2013, the women repeated the feat.
His short tenure impressed Arizona head Coach Tad Berkowitz, as Spencer was quickly hired as the men’s assistant in the summer of 2013, marking his return to the Pac-12.
As for The Positive Change Project?
“It’s still doing a food drop every week,” said Spencer. “We provide the orphanage with lunches and other food items so they can have meals. We haven’t raised enough for a whole day of food, but we give them daily lunches.”
For all Spencer has done for South African village youth, they’ve had an equal impact on him.
“I realized how lucky I was to be brought up with tennis and the life tennis gave me,” said Spencer. When you play it your whole life you make it a bigger entity than it really is. There are a lot bigger things going on in the world than sports, and being in South Africa opened my eyes to how fortunate I am.”
Despite the emotional rollercoaster college athletics can embody, it’s just a game. Nobody is worried about the next meal, nobody is worried about a life threatening disease, and nobody wonders where they will be sleeping once the buzzer sounds. For all sports are, it is crucial to remember all they are not.
For Coach Spencer and many others, stepping outside of this realm puts life in perspective. It reveals what matters most while increasing the appreciation for life’s luxuries. Shining light on this and becoming conscious of the true role of sports only makes every jump shot, every game of catch, and every bounce of the tennis ball that much more remarkable.
To find out how you can help The Positive Change Project, visit thepositivechangeproject.org.