Son’s diagnosis leads Els on personal mission to tackle autism
PGA Tour

Son’s diagnosis leads Els on personal mission to tackle autism

Even the most casual of golf fans knows the name Ernie Els.

For 25 years, Els has been winning pro golf tournaments, more than 70 to date including four majors – the 1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens and the 2002 and 2012 Open Championships. The 6-foot-three South African, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, is well known for his fluid, almost effortless looking golf swing.

Matching his passion for excellence on the course is Els’ philanthropic efforts.

Since 1999, the Ernie Els Foundation has been introducing educational and playing opportunities to young and talented South African golfers, most from families of limited means and resources, in an effort to produce successful individuals on and off the course. The Els Foundation has offices in the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa.

Bolstering the organization’s efforts, the Foundation teamed with the Fancourt Hotel and Golf Estate eight years ago to establish the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation.

Els' desire to help others took on a decidedly personal tone for Els and his wife Liezl back in 2002 when their son Ben was born. Knowing that something wasn’t quite right with his early development, Ben was examined and subsequently diagnosed with autism. The Els', admittedly private people, didn’t initially share the news with many outside of their inner circle. In fact, many pros didn’t realize anything until Els began displaying an “Autism Speaks” logo on his golf bag in 2008. Realizing full well that their position in the public eye provided them with a tremendous opportunity to raise funds and awareness for autism, the Els established the Els for Autism Foundation in 2009.

Els for Autism is committed to helping those on the autism spectrum lead positive, productive and rewarding lives through:

  • Facilitating the development and delivery of treatment therapies, educational therapies, training programs, sports programs as well as an independent living program,
  • Development of global outreach programs that will facilitate the sharing of best practices and programs, and
  • Understanding the nature of autism and raising awareness of and promoting the value, acceptance and inclusion of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

To those ends, today the Autism Foundation is in the midst of a $30 million capital-raising campaign to finance the development and establishment of the state-of-the-art Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter, Fla., a center that will have a local, national and global reach. An Els Foundation center in South Africa already supports about 100 families with children with autism through direct program development and training, but this U.S.-based center will go above and beyond what the foundation is already doing.

The Els family has already committed $6 million of their own money to the effort.  The PGA Tour and Els’ fellow golfers have been extremely supportive of the foundation's mission to make a difference in the lives of people worldwide on the autism spectrum.

Ground was broken on the Center back in March with doors expected to open in the spring of next year. Once completed, the Center will provide an on-site educational program for 300 children on the autism spectrum between the ages of 3 and 21.

For Dr. Marlene Sotelo, program director for the Els for Autism Foundation, when the chance arose to join the Foundation, Sotelo didn’t think twice.

“When the opportunity to be part of such a wonderful organization came in front of me, there wasn’t any possibility of walking away,” Sotelo said.

Sotelo has been working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder for more than 15 years as a music therapist, special education teacher, and behavior analyst. Working with Els for Autism, she has an opportunity to be at the forefront of research into the condition.

“It is a dream for me as a professional to be directly involved in the development of programs for the Els Center of Excellence and to share all of the best practices housed there through our global digital outreach services," she said.

The Els for Autism Golf Challenge has again been a major success in 2014. An international, season-long charity-driven amateur golf tournament that takes place between May and September at more than 20 golf courses in North America, the '14 Golf Challenge docket included stops at Baltusrol, Harbour Town, TPC Boston and Pinehurst. Since the challenge began four years ago, more than 7,500 rounds of golf have been played and over $9 million has been raised.

Each event also includes the #GameON Autism Golf program where the foundation hosts clinics for individuals ages 6-23 with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), introducing them to golf. More than 300 participants took part in the clinics this year, and Sotelo says the program will be expanded to select golf courses that will partner with local autism schools to establish golf as a year-round training program for individuals with ASD.

The Autism Foundation is always busy with other fundraising programs, including:

  • The E4A Pro-Am: One of the most successful annual pro-ams in the country, the event raises more than $700,000 each year.
  • Liezl’s Tea Party: The event, which just celebrated its fifth year, has raised over $500,000.
  • Light it Up Blue: The Els for Autism team lights up the Jupiter Lighthouse with blue light.

At the moment, Sotelo and the entire Els for Autism team are focused on completing the construction on the Center of Excellence so that they can begin to directly impact the lives of the 300 students that will call the center home. It's that opportunity that drives Sotelo.

“How could I not be passionate about working with such amazing people, starting with Liezl and Ernie, the fantastic staff in the Jupiter office and our other offices across the world,” Sotelo said. “Most of all, I’m passionate about working with individuals with autism because throughout the many years I have been in this field, I have seen the difference that good intervention and caring people can make in the lives of these people with autism. I don’t consider my job work because I love what I do and I love the people I work with.”

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John Lahtinen

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