“Nice try … next time just hit it a little harder,” encourages pro Kevin Smith to the eager golfing pupil standing in front of him on the green.
It is late Wednesday afternoon and the sky is bright blue, the air is warm and dry – a perfect day for a round of golf.
A group of people has assembled at the golf course for an enjoyable two hours of playing golf, to socialize and to eagerly receive some pointers from Smith on how to improve their putting and chipping skills. These enthusiastic athletes are male and female, ranging in age from 8 into their 70s, but they are not the usual recreational players that frequent the Rockledge greens.
They are members of the West Hartford Special Olympics golf team, practicing and playing all summer to prepare for the Special Olympics, which will take place on September 9 at Sleeping Giant Golf Course in Hamden.
The 13 members of the team are guided every step of the way by volunteers, including Smith and West Hartford’s Special Olympics Local Coordinator, John Van Hare. In addition, each athlete is paired with a partner or mentor who, during games, will alternate taking turns at play.
For the 23-year-old Smith, his time coaching the group is a labor of love – love for the game that he has played since he was an 8-year-old at , and love for the joy that it brings the people whom he coaches. He has worked at Rockledge for nine years, since his freshman year at .
During his high school days, Smith had to choose between playing baseball or golf. Choosing the latter, he has never regretted his decision. Upon graduation from the University of Connecticut this spring, he was hired as one of one of the Golf Club’s pros. Soon afterward, in the men’s locker room, he read a flyer requesting a volunteer golf coach to help run and teach the Special Olympics team through this summer.
In previous years the team had been meeting at a golf course in Farmington. Since a majority of the players live in West Hartford, Smith made some phone calls and exchanged emails with town officials requesting permission to move the team to the Rockledge and Buena Vista courses. He was delighted when the town agreed.
Every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the team meets at Rockledge to practice skills and every Friday at the same time, a select group of the more highly-skilled players meets at Buena Vista to play a nine-hole game.
For Smith, these past few weeks have been as rewarding for him as they are for players.
“It’s just unbelievable working with these people. We take it for granted what we can do but these people grew up with a disability and many times they don’t have the physical activity. If they hit the ball three feet or one hundred fifty yards, they smile and love being out here with their friends. So to have a program like this and to help them out and teach them golf – a game that I love – is just phenomenal.”
For Van Hare, helping out is more than a job; it is a family affair. Van Hare’s 15-year-old son Joshua is one of the players, and Van Hare’s wife Carmel is an assistant coach. The family resides in Bloomfield and Joshua attends the on North Main Street.
Since taking over as the Special Olympics Local Coordinator, Van Hare is focused on getting the word out about the various Special Olympics sports that are offered year-round that also include Aquatics, Cycling, Track and Field, Softball, Volleyball, Basketball and Floor Hockey, among others. He particularly wants to attract the younger athletes and their families’ participation.
“Our population is weighted towards the older athletes and we haven’t been getting the younger athletes to bulk up that end of the program.”
The Special Olympics program is an off-shoot of the Unified Sports Program that pairs individuals with disabilities with partners on the same sports teams for training and competition. From elementary school through adulthood, team members improve their self-esteem, develop friendships, and cultivate empathy and an understanding of each other’s capabilities.
From a father’s standpoint, Van Hare is grateful to observe the older players and how they are enjoying their lives. “From the family side, as parents having a younger child, we see that there are possibilities in life for him. Some live on their own, some drive. The friendships that they have made being involved in the sports for the past 10 or 15 years are just incredible.”
Van Hare’s wife Carmel concurs. “It’s a great social event for them.” Joshua sits off to the side having completed his lesson on putting skills. He is also involved in softball, volleyball, floor hockey, basketball and cycling during various times of the year but, this afternoon, he is intensely focused on his golf game.
When asked what he loves about these golf sessions, he answers, “Coach,” pointing to Smith. But what about his Dad who helps out with every game? After pausing a moment, Joshua says, “I like him too.”
Two of the players’ mothers sit off to the side on a bench watching their sons practice. Fran Griffin’s son, Jackie, is 53 years old and has been involved with the Special Olympics since 1969. Her husband joins Jackie during these lessons as his partner and Griffin says that her son loves the activity.
“He has played golf for about 10 years and he seems to really enjoy it. I think it is a good time for him to be with his father.”
Charlotte Tacy, whose 34-year-old son William had just completed his turn on the putting green with some impressively accurate shots, talked about what the Special Olympics means for her son and for her. “This is what he wanted to do and he takes every sport very seriously. This is his socialization as well as the competition and I think it makes him feel good about himself and being with his friends makes a big difference. It means a lot to me.”
For more information about the Special Olympics sports programs contact John Van Hare by phone: 860-205-2337 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.