How Pro Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els’ Journey of Raising his Autistic Son has Impacted the World
Ernie Els has many titles, including “World of Golf Hall of Famer,” “Four-Time Major Champion,” and “The Big Easy,” but to Samantha and Ben, he’s “Dad.”
He married his wife, Liezl, in 1999, and shortly after, a perfectly healthy baby girl, named Samantha (Sam), entered their world. A few years later, along came their son, Ben. “From a very early age, we could sense that there was something not quite the same. They all say boys are a little bit slower, we all understand that, but Ben was particularly slow even to start crawling and didn’t make a lot of eye contact.”
Since Ben was born in 2002, there was not a lot of information on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). But when Ernie and Liezl started researching, they realized Ben checked every box. Ben was officially diagnosed with ASD at age three and a half years old.
They were living in England at the time and decided to enroll Ben in the same school as Sam. “He didn’t react well to the school, and, in fact, he absolutely despised going there. He couldn’t communicate with us, and it was tough on us all. Then, we started realizing, ‘You know what? Let’s try and find out what makes Ben happy.’ That is when our whole world started changing, and it’s because of a school we found in Florida.”
The Els family found a home in Palm Beach and enrolled their son in the school they had found. “He started loving it because he was going to school with his buddies; he was going to a place where he felt comfortable. He was so at ease, and he started smiling and just started opening up.”
The school was just what Ben needed; however, it was housed in an old commercial building with makeshift classrooms. “That’s when Liezl said, ‘It’s time to build something proper for kids with autism.'”
Using his golf platform, Ernie and Liezl, along with good friend, Marvin Shanken, of M.Shanken Communications, set out to establish the Els for Autism Foundation®, a 501 (c)(3), in 2009. They knew the best way to raise funds was through golf, and in March 2009, the inaugural Els for Autism Pro-Am raised $725,00, followed by the inaugural Golf Challenge in 2011, which raised $1.7 million.
In March 2014, they broke ground on a 26-acre property in Jupiter, Florida, to build the Els Center of Excellence® to serve individuals with ASD from age three through adulthood. The campus is now home to two educational wings, the Rupert Education Wing and the Shanken Education Wing, a Sensory Arts Garden, and the soon-to-be-completed Stoops Family Adults Services building. “At age 21, the system stops, either the child goes back into society or back home. Our adult services program strives to provide opportunities, such as employment and day programs, to these adults.”
But Ernie is far from done making the campus a haven for individuals with ASD. “Our next project is going to be building a recreation complex with a gymnasium, handicap accessible pool, and splash pad. We already have a little golf range and tennis courts on our property, and we do all kinds of recreation activities for individuals with ASD to come and just be themselves simply.” In fact, the Ernie Els #GameON Autism® Programs are changing the culture of sports and recreation by supporting individuals with ASD to feel included and confident to participate in recreational activities on and off our campus.
Even though Ernie has changed the game for thousands of individuals with ASD and their caregivers, he still reflects on the early years. “For those two years, I didn’t feel good about putting Ben in the same school as Sam. I kind of blame myself for some of the stuff, but now my relationship with Ben is fantastic. We’re best of friends. He loves golf, he’s not very athletic, but he loves coming to the golf course; he loves being outdoors; he loves people. He’s just a different guy.”
Els also commends the support of his daughter. “Samantha, she’s got to get so much credit, because, for a long time, she had to play second fiddle. And she’s come through it with flying colors. She’s a wonderful person, and she’s going to be looking after Ben when we’re not there, and she says she’s looking forward to that.”
To date, the Els for Autism Foundation team has raised more than $50 million to create a world of limitless possibilities for individuals with ASD and their families, thanks to the drive of Ernie Els, proud dad of Sam and Ben.