A big blue sky invites flying golf balls and green grass is waiting to be aerated by golf shoes. The only problem is there are no members on the golf course of the Sharon Heights Country Club (SHCC) in Menlo Park, CA. The only golfers here are wounded Veterans from VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS), invited by the board members of the SHCC to participate in a one-of-a-kind golf clinic that they hope to branch out to other golf courses that want to take part in the healing process of these wounded warriors.
"Our Veterans are blind, paralyzed, and/or have traumatic brain injuries. This program takes away a lot of the intimidation of going to a golf course and trying to figure it out alone," said Nicole Marquez, recreation therapist at VAPAHCS. "This creates a safe zone where they are able to make mistakes and learn. It also helps them to reintegrate back into the community and find confidence that they can still do things they did before their injuries."
Nicole and many other recreation therapists work with wounded Veterans every day at VAPAHCS to help them cope with their injuries and facilitate rehabilitation.
"The main idea is just helping Veterans," said Marty Connelly, SHCC member and one of the catalysts in getting the clinic off the ground. "Our club has resources that could be beneficial for Veterans, and this is something that needs to be part of our lives. Everyone benefits - Veterans, families and golfers."
The board and members of the SHCC approved the project in March 2011. They continue to grow the program by working with sporting goods manufacturers to receive special golfing equipment and recently purchased a new golf system called SNAG to help golf instruction for the VA Palo Alto campus.
"When Marty and Gary brought this proposal to us, we endorsed it 100 percent," said George Cavender, President of the SHCC Board. He and other board members come to each clinic to support and help out any way they can.
The golf course is closed the day of the clinic and is set up so each Veteran is paired with a golf pro instructor at the driving range. The pro helps beginners learn the rules, how to swing their club, and learn to putt on the green. More experienced Veteran golfers are helped to improve their swing and will eventually be taken out on the course for a game.
"In the beginning, it was hard because of my traumatic brain injury (TBI) and I didn't have much confidence," said Peter Rodriguez, who has no vision in his left eye and can only see from his upper quadrant in his left eye. "My instructor told me to just breathe and relax; then the ball started going straighter and farther!"
After suffering a TBI during a tour in Afghanistan, Rodriguez came to VA Palo Alto with his wife for rehabilitation at the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center (WBRC). They plan to retire in Florida where they can be close to a VA medical center and have plenty of places to golf.
"For my husband to be golfing is amazing," said Yolanda Cruz, wife of Rodriguez. "This was one of his goals before he was injured and he thought he would never be able to try it out. I'm so happy that he is able to practice, no matter what."
The same feelings were felt by Veteran Michael and his fiancé Lara, who came from Hawaii after he suffered a stroke in March. The couple embraced as she said, "This is his first time picking up a golf club after his stroke and I cannot stress enough what a gift this is to be here."