SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – For Ernie Els, the real championship was on Monday.
The four-time major winner and former world No. 1 golfer flew back to Florida after the PGA Championship to open the Els Center of Excellence, a 26-acre campus for autistic children which he and his wife, Liezl, have been funding and building for eight years.
“Unbelievable, really,” Els said here Thursday. “It’s a dream come true.”
Autism, which is a range of neurological disorders characterized by social impairments and communication difficulties, affects two million individuals in the U.S. When Els’ son, Ben, was diagnosed, the family realized how difficult it is to get good information and good schooling for children on the autism spectrum. Els wanted to donate money to science, but Liezl’s idea was bolder: build an entire school.
“For us it was a thousand times easier because we could travel to other places and find the expertise we needed,” Liezl said. “I saw the need out there and how much you can suffer if you don’t have the all the services and therapies.”
Els invested $6 million of his own money and raised far more for the $30 million center, which had its groundbreaking last year. On Monday, 115 kids arrived at the campus, including Ben Els, now 12, who will be a student. The kids were dropped off under large awnings, because some autistic children don’t react well to having spots on their clothes from raindrops. Els explained Thursday that classroom windows were built at a level so that students can see out of them while standing, but not while seated at their desks – to help with focus and concentration. Each class will have its own restroom, to help teachers with supervision. Parents will be allowed to watch classes, and rooms are soundproofed to keep distractions to a minimum.
Although only children from Palm Beach County can attend now, the goal is to serve the global population by allowing researchers to watch classes virtually. Some international families will be invited to visit, and one group from Brazil has already seen the center.
“Each room can be broadcast by satellite around the world,” said Els, who finished tied for 25th at the PGA. “Scientists can look at a class, all day long, for eight hours.”
There will also be a high school and job training for graduates. And, yes, students will have access to a golf facility with a putting green and driving range.
“I wanted a one-stop shop,” Liezl said. “A place for medical, a place for research, a place for your adult child to find vocational opportunities.”
So the goal is to create not only a leading school, but a hub for advancing the study and awareness of autism. Els’ worldwide fame helps as well, and several PGA pros flying from Wisconsin were expected at the opening ceremonies in Jupiter, which were broadcast on Periscope.
When asked if he wanted to be known for golf or for this school, Els said he didn’t care.
“We just want to show people what a school for autistic kids should look like.”
The foundation was established to help increase Autism awareness globally and to support families and providers of children with learning disabilities. The Alexis Miranda Foundation (AMF) is committed to enhancing the quality of life for individuals and families impacted by Autism and other disabilities.