Oswego High School hosts a very special golf program

Wil Jarvis hits his shot during a golf lesson in his physical education class at Oswego High School on Monday, March 4, 2024. The class was part of a six-week program collaboration with the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance.

Special education students at Oswego High School have been learning to golf thanks to a specialized program from the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance.

Commissioned by the school district, the USAGA has been hosting its six-week program at the high school for the past three years, and physical education teachers say it has been a fun and positive experience for the students, who have loved learning the game.

USAGA executive director Jonathan Snyder said the alliance uses the game of golf to provide freedom, empowerment and inclusion to people with disabilities of all kinds. The groups’s Starting New At Golf program provides six weeks of specialized training designed to break down the barriers of the sport to allow anyone to learn.

About 50 OHS special education students learned to golf in the program this year, and physical education teacher John Harazin said every student is able to learn the basics of golf and they all have a good time doing it.

“The golf program has been a big hit,” Harazin said. “Every Monday, the kids are always excited and asking me, ‘are we going to golf today?’”

Oswego High School student Grace Atwood, with the help of classmate Mila Knoblock, tees up her golf shot during their physical education class at Oswego High School on Monday, March 4, 2024. The class was part of a six-week program collaboration with the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance.

The SNAG program is a two- to four-step program, depending on the functionality of participants. Step one consists of USAGA members training adaptive coaches, in this case four of their adaptive instructors came to OHS every Monday for six weeks.

Harazin said the USAGA team provides everything for the class, from the tools to instruction, and the physical education teachers just provide support and organization during the program.

Step two is providing students with adaptive golf instruction through the SNAG program, where participants with all kinds of disabilities, from amputees to the mentally disabled, learn the basics of the game using tennis balls and custom oversized clubs.

USAGA’s adaptive training tools and specialized equipment remove some of the challenges to make learning to golf a simple and fun experience, beginning with learning the grip and stance, and slowly introducing putting and chipping.

Steps three and four are only implemented if the participants are highly functioning. Those students are brought to driving ranges to hit real golf balls, followed by entering in competition, either on their own or in one of USAGA’s many events across the country.

At OHS, the program is tailored to the special education students, and while they are not going to be competing in USAGA events, several have gone to driving ranges and many compete in the Special Olympics. Snyder said whether they move on to compete or not, the goal of the program is to make learning the game an inclusive and positive experience more than anything else.

‘A game changer’

The final day of this year’s program at OHS was on March 4, and the high school gymnasium was full of smiles, high fives and positive energy as the special education students used the custom equipment to practice their golf swings in friendly putting competitions and a chipping game with a live target.

Oswego High School student Bradon Boykins tees up his golf shot at classmate Madi Dietz during their physical education class at Oswego High School on Monday, March 4, 2024. The class was part of a six-week program collaboration with the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance.

There was an air of excitement during the final day of the program. Music played while the students golfed, and the gym often erupted in cheers and celebration from supportive classmates and peer leaders.

“The joy that you see on their faces is the best part of this,” Snyder said. “There is really nothing that they can’t do. I tell people all the time, this is the beginning of some of the greatest adaptive athletes who are ever going to walk, or not walk, the planet. All it takes is a little spark.”

Snyder said a common misconception about paralympic competition is that the name means the athletes are wheelchair bound or implies disabilities. The true etymology comes from the Greek preposition “para” meaning parallel, or alongside the Olympic athletes.

“If we start treating these kids differently, then they start to recognize that they’re different from the rest of the kids,” Snyder said. “We very much so want them to feel included in this sport. That’s what we do, we teach them ways to compete and participate the same way everyone else does.”

Harazin said the golf program has been absolutely fantastic, and the students and teachers look forward to hosting the program every year. He said they intend to host the program for years to come.

In addition to the USAGA coaches and physical education teachers, each special education student at OHS is assigned at least one peer leader, which are students who have volunteered to assist the special education students during physical education throughout the year through the collaborative physical education program.

OHS has been running the collaborative physical education program for nine years, and Harazin said the students’ response to the program has been fantastic. He said they get about 50 applications from students who want to be peer leaders each year.

Oswego High School student Guhan Ramesh watches where his golf ball goes during a physical education class at Oswego High School on Monday, March 4, 2024. The class was part of a six-week program collaboration with the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance.

Before the collaborative physical education program, the special education students were enrolled in the same physical education class as everyone else. Now, they are automatically entered into the collaborative physical education class as freshman.

“It has been a game changer. Ever since our first year it’s been getting better and better, and it’s one of our most popular classes now. It’s fantastic,” Harazin said. “I just can’t say enough about how this has changed my life and the lives of our special needs students. They grow a lot. From freshman year to senior year, it’s just leaps and bounds.”

Harazin said almost all of the peer leaders are students who want to go into special education, or have some sort of personal connection to a person with special needs. The students chosen as peer leaders have to have a certain GPA and most are nominated by their teachers.

“They get to come to this class and talk to their buddies and to people they would never interact with otherwise,” Harazin said. “It gives our special needs population exposure to all the kids in regular education. Our whole thing is about building relationships, not only in this class, but school-wide.”

Due to the success of the program at OHS, this year the school district also introduced the collaborative physical education program at the junior high level.

Harazin and his fellow physical education teacher Robin Smith said they would absolutely recommend the SNAG and collaborative physical education programs to other schools, as it has become an important aspect of the education of their special education population, who are otherwise in separate classes from the rest of the students.

Wil Jarvis high-fives a classmate during a golf lesson in his physical education class at Oswego High School on Monday, March 4, 2024. The class was part of a six-week program collaboration with the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance.

Smith said the impact of the program has reached beyond just the confidence and participation of the special education students in gym class. She said it has resulted in a complete culture shift in the school, and given the special education students a lot of exposure.

“Over the course of time since we’ve had this program, we’ve seen such a difference in the culture in the building and how our kids are accepted in other areas,” Smith said. “They have people to sit with at lunch, they get invited to dances, people say hi to them in the hallways.”

OHS senior Ava Hutchings has been a peer leader since her junior year, and wants to be a para-educator and speech pathologist working with special needs students. She said the relationships that have grown from the program were surprising.

“I think it surprised me how close our class got,” Hutchings said. “All of us know each others names, we talk all the time and say hi in the hallways. We all do everything together, so I think it has created a really close bond.”

Hutchings said the special education students really love the six weeks of the year that USAGA comes to the school, and said her buddy, Zach, talks about golfing all the time now. She said she sees a different side of the special education students during the program, where they are more supportive of each other because it’s something new, challenging and a little competitive.

The USAGA’s mission is close to home for Snyder, who has a brother with cerebral palsy and is a para-golfer himself, having been born with his left arm ending just below the elbow. Today, he and his brother both enjoy playing the game of golf. Snyder is a 4-handicap and competes at the highest levels of para-competition across the country.

Snyder said the program provides adaptive golf instruction to 40,000 individuals annually and is only limited by the number of coaches they have and by funding. The program is provided at no cost to the school, though donations are accepted, and is funded mainly by donors and sponsorships.

Those who wish to help support the program can make a donation at https://www.usaga.org/donate-to-usaga.