Like for many Lao seniors, Soutta Thavong's life is entrenched in his family and close-knit community, even when it comes to exercising. A leader at a Buddhist temple in Hampshire, 72-year-old Thavong stays in shape by playing tennis with fellow Lao residents in Elgin.
Three weeks ago, Thavong ventured into something new: playing pickleball with strangers at the Centre of Elgin. "It's a little bit different from tennis," he said. "I like it."
Thavong's presence on the pickleball court comes thanks to his friend Douangchay Hedstron, who's been prompting Lao seniors to check out drop-in times at the Centre. Part of her work is to encourage seniors to overcome any anxieties about language barriers, Hedstron said.
"I have been telling everyone about pickleball and posting photos (on Facebook)," said Hedstron, who at 50 is younger than many of the seniors she knows from the tennis circuit. "I am very happy because they started coming. Sometimes it's hard for them to do things with the American community. I am proud of the older generation that they are coming out."
Pickleball is a growing sport across the country and popular among seniors, Elgin senior recreation supervisor Brett Lind said. The game is played on a badminton-sized court with a short net, paddles and a ball similar to a Wiffle ball. Games usually are played to 11 points -- you can score only on your own serve -- and last up to 15 minutes.
"You can be active and get a good workout, but not strain your body too much," he said. "You can play longer."
The Centre started offering pickleball in October. About two dozen people, including five Lao residents, took turns Tuesday playing doubles on three courts.
"I like it because it feels better (physically) to play," said Sisouk Insisiengmay, 67, of Hampshire. "It's easy to learn because I play tennis in summer. Also badminton."
The atmosphere at the Centre is welcoming because "veterans" are eager to show the ropes to newcomers, Hedstron said. Winning teams split up for the next game so no one has an unfair advantage.
"Everyone is nice," she said.
Elgin's Gil Acosta, 78, has been playing outdoors for years in the Edgewater adult community where he lives. Acosta said he enjoys the camaraderie with players at the Centre, and any language barrier is overcome by mutual enjoyment of the sport.
"A lot of this game is reflex," he said. "You don't have to be strong like for tennis, and you don't have to worry about tennis elbow. ... There is a lot of movement, but it's not like you have to kill yourself. And you don't have to be a physical specimen to play."
Hedstron is working on organizing a pickleball game between Lao seniors and members of the Elgin Police Department, where she serves on the citizens advisory committee. People in the Lao community often are leery of interacting with police, and this would be a way to build bridges, she said.
Cmdr. Ana Lalley said several members of the police department, including the deputy chief, are avid pickleball players.
"This is another way we could get to engage so we can get to know other people (in the community), and they can get to know us," she said.