Dawn Mattson of Glen Ellyn transfers from her power wheelchair to a single-player golf cart for a monthly clinic for veterans with disabilities at Cantigny Golf Academy in Wheaton.
Donna Strum of RevelationGolf leads the small group of players in stretches and warm-up exercises before they start hitting balls. Mattson, a U.S. Army veteran who was injured in a car accident, says she really couldn't hit the ball far at all when she first began playing golf two years ago.
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"I've improved a lot," she says. "I think it's very beneficial for veterans. I think it helps emotionally as well as physically. Emotionally it just gives you a sense of being able to accomplish something."
Cantigny Golf and RevelationGolf have been working together for a half-dozen years to use golf to improve the quality of life for veterans with physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder. Marybeth Verbinski, a recreational therapist from Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Maywood, has accompanied veterans participating in the program for five years.
"We've had hundreds of people go through this program," she said. "This makes all the difference in veterans' lives. It gives a chance for them to develop physically as well as emotionally."
Some veterans go on to buy their own set of clubs and play with able-bodied friends, Verbinski said.
"It greatly decreases depression and anxiety," she said.
Strum, a therapeutic recreation specialist, quit her job in a hospital to start Elk Grove-based RevelationGolf in 2005. She and Kathy Williams, an LPGA teaching professional, offer golfing programs for children and adults with physical disabilities, breast cancer survivors and at-risk youth throughout the Chicago area.
They started the veterans program in 2007, and Cantigny Golf, which hosted RevelationGolf events from the beginning, began conducting the monthly clinics in 2008. RevelationGolf recognized Cantigny Golf for its work with disabled veterans with a Humanitarian Award earlier this summer.
Know your golfer
Weather permitting, Cantigny head golf professional Patrick Lynch and his staff are out the first Tuesday of the month, April through November, helping conduct the free clinics. Two 90-minute sessions, with the next scheduled for Sept. 2, are offered each time with different groups of veterans. Each clinic has six to 10 players, with a goal of having a 3-to-1 ratio of golfers to teaching professionals.
Lynch donates his time and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the owner of Cantigny Golf, is a financial supporter of RevelationGolf. Lynch said he has learned to work with golfers with a wide range of abilities. The most challenging part is learning how to communicate with those with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, he said.
"The goals can be different for every individual. For some people, hitting the ball 20 yards is an accomplishment," he said. "You have to learn the person first before you know how to teach them. You have to learn what their capabilities are and you have to be very creative."
RevelationGolf offers workshops for golf pros on how to teach people with disabilities that both Lynch and his assistant have attended, Strum said. Cantigny Golf also has invested in serving people with disabilities by offering the single-player golf cart that allows the golfer to turn 180 degrees and play from a seated position, Strum said.
Other modifications for golfers with disabilities include ultra light clubs, Velcro straps on the club, raised golf tees, white rims behind the holes for the visually impaired, and modified grips and swings.
"Golf is extremely therapeutic and can be modified," Strum said. "There's always some way to adapt it. That's the good thing with golf."
Golf enables disabled players to build balance, endurance, range of motion and coordination, Strum said. Perhaps just as important, it helps to build confidence and friendships.
"When we've had success with something, it shows you that you can do it," Strum said. "You've given someone who may have been more isolated a whole new avenue to explore."
The disabled veterans range in age from those who served in the Korean War to those returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. All must have a physician sign off to allow them to play with the doctor specifying restrictions, such as a need for frequent breaks.
Some have played golf before; for others, it's a whole new game. Most of those participating in the Cantigny clinics are from Hines VA Hospital and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.
The program is so popular with veterans served by Hines that the hospital offers them three months, or a total of six sessions, Verbinski said. The three sessions at Cantigny focus on hitting balls. The other three sessions, meeting at the Chicago District Golf Association's Midwest Golf House in Lemont, allow them to play a 3-hole course.
"To play the course is a different experience," Strum said.
A monthly Community Veterans Golf Clinic also is offered in Lemont to allow veterans who have been through the program to come back and play. A Veterans Golf Tournament, in which players have a chance to put their skills to the test on the course, is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 8, at Cantigny.
Up to 700 veterans a year come through Cantigny, Strum said. A not-for-profit, RevelationGolf depends on support from organizations that serve its clients, donations and fundraisers for the $200,000 a year it takes to run its various programs.
It has relationships with the USGA, LPGA, the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Chicago District Golf Association, and more than 18 golf courses in the Chicago metro area, as well as many community agencies. That adds up to a lot of miles from Strum and Williams, who say it's worth it.
"It really is an incredible feeling to say or do something where you make such an impact on someone else," Strum said. "It is a very, very rewarding feeling."