(WSPA) – Among the many programs offered by First Tee-Upstate is their Els for Autism program impacting local kids on the spectrum.

The program, in partnership with the organization founded by World Golf Hall of Famer Ernie Els, has a primary goal of bringing parents and kids impacted by autism together around a common interest: golf. 

“I wanted my kids to be involved and be active and be included in something,” said Jhon Ortega, who enrolled his two kids, Zachary and Jhay, in the program. “The First Tee was perfect for them.” 

“Here at our clinics we offer an opportunity to meet their individual children exactly at the level that they’re functioning today and believe where they’re going tomorrow,” said lead coach Laura Maurer.  

“They understand, they help and they really help these kids to develop mentally and physically,” Ortega added.  

The Ortega family joined when the program became a part of the First Tee Upstate umbrella in 2020. It was a way Jhon, an avid golf fan, could introduce his kids to the sport.”

“What I most like about golf is just like hitting the ball and mostly having fun,” Zachary Ortega said.  

Passionate kids like Zachary are what inspired Maurer to join the program as a coach. And as someone who benefitted from other First Tee initiatives as a kid, she knows firsthand the influence these mentors can have.

“That is what motivated me to come back as a coach, because I wanted to help impact the lives of young people the way that mentors impacted my life through First Tee,” said Maurer.  

Among the benefits of the Els for Autism clinic is the networking aspect. Parents meeting other parents, and kids meeting kids with a similar passion.

“It’s hard for people with special needs to get together with other families [of] kids with special needs…So these events are great for that,” Ortega said.  

It’s a bonding exercise in an environment treated with care and understanding paving way for the parents and the kids alike to flourish.

“Everyone wants to feel accepted and loved for who they are and that’s what we show here,” said Maurer. “So I think it might not even be golf, but more the people and the way that we are able to see these families that keeps bringing them back.” 

For more information on First Tee-Upstate, click here.