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Program provides opportunity for children with disabilities at Phoenix Open

Christina Clapp, 19, prepares to deliver Aaron Wise’s nameplate to his spot at the driving range. (Photo by Carson Field/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Aaron Wise approached the driving range at TPC Scottsdale, looking for a spot to set up before a recent practice round at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Not missing a beat, someone led the PGA Tour golfer in the right direction.

“I’m ready!” said Christina Clapp, who held Wise’s nameplate in her hands and led him to his spot on the range.

Clapp, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome, was one of 10 children and young adults with disabilities who assisted with the tournament. Those volunteers were members of Arizona Young Life Capernaum, a program devoted to teaching children with disabilities the core beliefs of Christianity and preparing them to serve in the future.

This year marked the program’s first time at the tournament. And it wasn’t hard to convince the tournament officials of this idea.

“I just contacted them, and they were on board,” said Elizabeth Nenon, development director of Young Life Capernaum. “It’s great that we can be out here.”

The volunteers’ responsibilities ranged from handing out nameplates to picking up trash to anything else that was needed. They worked from Tuesday through Friday, offering extra assistance to an event that garners hundreds of thousands of patrons.

But the 10 adolescents got a lot in return from the experience, too.

“It’s fun to meet the golfers,” said Vicki Richardson, who is 19 years old with general intellectual delays. “I like picking up golf balls and hanging out with my friends.”

Clapp added, “I pretty much have a lot of fun!”

And it wasn’t just rewarding to the kids. It also provided their leaders – who helped run the program at the tournament – with a sense of pride while watching the young volunteers flourish.

“It’s the most fulfilling thing,” said Arizona Young Life Capernaum staff member Natalie Van Dyke. “It’s so much fun to hang out with them and see them smiling out here. It’s amazing that we get to go out here and have a blast.”

Not only did happiness radiate between the children and their leaders, it also spread to the golfers. In addition to Wise, the volunteers had memorable interactions with K.J. Choi, Charley Hoffman and Andrew Putnam, among other PGA Tour professionals.

“They naturally have a heart, pretty quickly,” Nenon said. “I think that the golfers are so charitable naturally that they typically have an eye for our friends.”

Choi and Hoffman even handed out their gloves to a couple of the kids once they finished at the range. While going home with a souvenir from a professional athlete is unforgettable for the children, it means just as much to the golfers.

“It’s pretty special to make a difference in these kids’ lives,” Hoffman said. “Any time you can put a smile on a kid’s face and make a difference, it means everything.”

Nenon and the other executives at Young Life hope this is just the beginning of Capernaum’s partnership with the PGA Tour. The program had assisted with a couple tournaments before the Phoenix Open and is already on board to work three more PGA Tour events this season.

Due to the exposure and success at TPC Scottsdale, Nenon thinks this could become a regular thing down the road.

“That’s our goal,” Nenon said. “We’d like to schedule more and more events so these kids can shine. I like the way the PGA comes about, in general, how everything’s a charity. So I hope there’s a future.”

Whether or not Capernaum becomes a full-time partner with the PGA Tour, the program has already been successful. It has given adolescents with disabilities the opportunity to gain confidence while working among world-class athletes.

That’s what Young Life Capernaum is all about.

“I think it’s just raising awareness that there’s capability,” said Liz Tatlow, a staff associate at Young Life Capernaum. “It just kind of opens eyes and creates a better community.

“I hope they feel confident that they do have a lot to offer and just have fun.”


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