The HUG Foundation partnered with the HEAL Foundation to host a golf camp for children with autism this week at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Held Monday, July 9 to Wednesday, July 11, the three-day golf camp offered children with autism a chance to learn about the game of golf, go on a nature hunt throughout the Stadium Course, create custom golf balls and test their skills on the 17th Island Green. Hosted by the HUG (Help Us Golf) Foundation, the camp was free for participants and made possible thanks to a grant from the HEAL Foundation.
Jarrad Kogos, the founder of HUG and a Fletcher High School graduate with Asperger Syndrome, said the camp enriches lives and helps kids with autism learn how to interact with others.
"Golf is a game they can use to connect to other people," he said. "It's also a good exercise rather than staying home and playing videogames all day."
Kogos, also a brain cancer survivor, said golf helped him get through life’s adversities and inspired him to start a nonprofit. His goal is to expand his golf camp and start a special needs golf tour in the next decade.
Additionally, Kogos said he receives positive feedback after every camp.
"Camp is usually full before I release the dates," he added. "All the parents always ask about it months in advance."
Lisa Homburger, the mother of a 9-year-old golf camp participant Hudson, said the event offers several mental and physical benefits and is a perfect fit for her son.
"He was always interested in golf," she said. "I think it really helps with hand-eye coordination for children with autism. It gives them immediate gratification, hitting the ball, getting it out there. I think a lot of it goes back to physical therapy."
PGA Head Golf Professional Brian Riddle coached participants and worked with the HUG Foundation in coordination with HEAL to help organize the camp. The PGA representative described the impact of the three-day event as "absolutely huge."
"It's not just swinging a golf club," he said. "We want them running, jumping, interacting, the social skills, playing with other kids and socializing with other kids. We also teach them about the environment at a golf course."
Some children can lose confidence in themselves if they miss a hole, Riddle said, so instructors offer them words of encouragement every time they take a swing.
"If the ball didn't go in the hole, they might think they failed," he added. "It's far from it. They're successful, they're making good swings and good attempts at it. We just enjoy seeing them enjoy it, we enjoy seeing them practice and play and get used to it and it's just as fun for us as it is for them."
Jason Gurka, the executive director of the HEAL Foundation, said his organization has supported HUG since the inaugural golf camp in 2009. The partnership works for HEAL because it allows families to enroll their children in a golf camp at no cost, Gurka added.
"It's easy to support Jarrad," Gurka said. "He's a class act and he really does care about teaching golf to kids who are on the spectrum."
Gurka said he chose to work with Kogos' HUG Foundation because of the organization’s track record. He added that the golf camp in particular is a rare opportunity for kids on the Autism Spectrum to familiarize themselves with the game.
Founded in 2004, HEAL has spent the last decade raising funds through events and providing grants to local organizations, camps and schools to serve those with autism. The organization has provided about $2 million in total at the local level. For more information on the HEAL Foundation or to make a donation through PayPal, visit www.healautismnow.org.