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First Tee program allows Special Olympics golfers to hit links with confidence

'Their enjoyment -- loving every minute -- makes it so fulfilling'

The Tri-Valley Special Olympics golf team poses for a picture at the regional tournament last fall. (Photo by Jerry Sobrero/First Tee)

You will never get a golf instructor to admit it publicly, but teaching the game of golf can be tedious and, at times, frustrating.

But then there are those occasions when the job is so fulfilling it seems like not a job, but rather a privilege to be teaching.

Such is the case for the staff at the First Tee of the Tri-Valley when it comes to their Special Olympics golf program. Special Olympics is part of the First Tee of the Tri-Valley's Outreach Programs and is one of the more influential when it comes to the coaches involved.

"I have always said these athletes are a gift to me and the other coaches," said Curtis Young, who heads up the program for the First Tee of the Tri-Valley. "When you have a hiccup in the road of life, look at these athletes and they have pure joy. They and their families are just nice people. They are the most satisfying group I have ever worked with."

For Young it was natural for him to be involved with the Special Olympics. He and his wife spent 20 years working with St. Augustine Catholic Church with people who have special needs in religious education. In addition, the now 71-year-old Young has been a life-long golfer, so working with Special Olympics golf was the perfect blend.

Special Olympics golf strives to provide individuals with developmental disabilities the opportunity to play and compete like any golfer.

The program depends on widespread community-based support to identify thousands of volunteers, to serve as coaches, playing partners, tournament organizers and general program administrators.

Additionally, financial resources must be secured to sustain existing opportunities and fund program expansion.

This is a key area where the First Tee of the Tri-Valley excels.

Brothers Dana and Greg Jetter are partners in Jetter Golf, which runs the Pleasanton Golf Center and Spring Valley Golf Course in Milpitas. The two are the founders of the First Tee of the Tri-Valley.

"It's always been a top priority for our board," Dana Jetter said of the Special Olympics program. "It is one of most coveted programs we offer. As the First Tee, we are there to support the program and provide the facility. It's a great program and a joy to watch the interaction between the staff and the athletes."

Jill Womble is a former golfer for both Foothill High School, as well as the University of Kansas. She is the program director for the First Tee of the Tri-Valley and oversees the Outreach portion (of which the Special Olympics is part) for the organization.

She has played golf at the highest levels from junior golf to college and knows firsthand the frustration that can come with the game. She embraces the unfettered joy the Special Olympics athletes bring to the program.

"Their enjoyment -- loving every minute -- makes it so fulfilling," Womble said. "So many of us get frustrated playing the game that just seeing the joy on their faces puts life into perspective."

This summer, Womble and Young expect 30 to 35 athletes to take part in the program.

One unique aspect of the First Tee locally is the Special Olympics program goes year-round as opposed to the standard season of June to Labor Day.

During the formal season they practice once a week, but following the end of the summer, the local First Tee program keeps them going once a month.

"I wanted to keep them engaged, keep them involved," Young said of the athletes. "We've been getting 10-12 each month."

The aim of the Special Olympics golf program is to impart to the athlete: basic golf skills, acceptable social behavior and fundamental knowledge of the rules of golf to enable them to participate in a regulation or modified game of golf.

Golf is recognized as a lifetime sport, one that promotes socialization and enhances self-esteem. Overall motor skills are improved, and better physical fitness is a result. Hand-eye coordination is refined, and general body control often is achieved. The joy and gratification of experiencing the achievement of new skills learned or a new performance level reached can add much to the athlete's personal satisfaction.

The season consists of four levels: skills, nine holes with unified partner (alternate shot), nine holes by yourself and 18 holes by yourself.

"During the summer, we run all the golfers through all the skills to see where they are," Young explained

At the end of the summer, the athletes compete in a regional competition.

The key to having a successful program is two parts -- you need the athletes to participate, but you also need quality coaches to make it work. Young excels at both.

"Curtis is so good at a recruiting and retaining the volunteers," Womble said. "But he's also good at retaining our roster of athletes. The program is a passion for him for sure."

The program continues to be successful and Dana Jetter for one looks at Young, Womble and the rest of the coaches as the keys.

"Curtis brings a level of passion and commitment to a program that needs just that," Dana Jetter added. "We could not exist without him, Jill or the other coaches. The coaches are completely engaged and there is a monumental giveback from the athletes to the coaches."

The Special Olympics golf program is just one of the Outreach Programs run through the First Tee of the Tri-Valley. On the surface, hear First Tee and you think of junior golfers learning the game and the core values of the First Tee.

The Tri-Valley organization has taken it to a whole new level with its Outreach efforts. It's a constant battle for the group as they work against the perception of all local families having money.

"(The First Tee of the Tri-Valley) is so much more," Womble said, about the organization being more than just junior golfers. "We battle the stigma that we provide programming to affluent kids. People think it's all sunny and breezy in Pleasanton, but that's not the case at all. There are 30% of our kids that are on scholarship assistance. We want kids to have the option to do something after school that don't normally have that choice."

The Tri-Valley group has five programs that are year-round and another 10 that take place one or two times a year. The 15 groups they work with are all nonprofit or part of an organization's charitable foundation.

"We have one of the biggest Outreach Programs for a First Tee in the United States," Womble said.

Some of the other programs that involve developmentally disabled participants that the Tri-Valley group works with are Dublin Easter Seals, Enjoy Life More, PGA Hope and Matters of Community.

One other program is the American Heart Association's "Saving Strokes," where they host an annual all-day event to introduce stroke survivors to golf as a rehabilitation alternative, while enhancing public awareness about the symptoms of a stroke with event talks.

The First Tee of the Tri-Valley staff provides countless hours of time making all these programs not just come to life, but function fluidly.

There are two big fundraisers each year. One took place in February, with the next scheduled for the fall.

The September event is the organization's big golf tournament -- The First Tee Tri-Valley Annual Golf Tournament at Castlewood Country Club. The pro-am portion of the event takes over both courses at Castlewood with the pro-am event on the Hill Course and the other on the Valley Course.

If you want to help the First Tee either as a volunteer or as a donor, they are more than willing to take the call.

"We are always looking for people and help," Womble said. "We meet with you and work to find the best fit."

Go to the First Tee website at thefirstteetrivalley.org or call the office at 399-8644 for help or more information on the fundraising events.

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