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Liezl Els Committed to Autism Awareness

March 11, 2010

Last week, Liezl Els was walking fast as she made her way toward the offices of Ernie Els Golf on U.S. Highway 1 in Jupiter, Fla. She had numerous things going on that day, but she was moving at a good pace mainly to get out of the rain that had begun falling. It was—and remains—a busy time for Els. Her husband, Ernie, was working that week but doing it at home rather than jetting off somewhere for an out-of-town tournament. It was The Honda Classic in nearby Palm Beach Gardens. An Els family tradition saw them open their home to a houseful of guests who routinely travel to South Florida for that tournament. With all that going on as a backdrop, Liezl was also thinking about another upcoming golf tournament.
  As she sat down at the spacious conference table, hanging on the wall behind her was an artist’s rendering of the Els Center of Excellence, a proposed academic village that will bring together the components of education, medical treatment and research for children on the autism spectrum. The Els’ 7-year-old son, Ben, is autistic.
  A year ago, the first Els for Autism Pro-Am attracted PGA TOUR and Champions Tour players playing alongside amateurs and netted $725,000, which went to The Renaissance Learning Center, a non-profit Palm Beach County public charter school for autism. The plan is for the Renaissance Learning Center to eventually become part of the Els Center of Excellence. When complete, the facility will be a model for the nation, providing children on the autism spectrum with a self-contained educational environment. The second annual fundraising tournament was only 13 days away. Since going public about Ben’s autism two years ago, the Elses have been passionate about not only helping their son but assisting others affected by autism. On that rainy South Florida day, Liezl sat down with Laury Livsey to talk about the tournament, their goals for the Els Center of Excellence and the progress Ben has made.

How long was it before you knew Ben wasn’t progressing like other children his age?
He didn’t have to grow for us to know that there was something not quite right. Right from the start he wasn’t like Samantha (the Els’ daughter). But I think like an ostrich I did try and hide with my head in the sand and pretend that nothing was wrong. Everyone tries to be nice around you. They would say no, boys are slow in developing. My son only did this and this at that age, and my son only did that. And I think you take comfort from that for a while, although in your heart you know right from the word go that he is different.

What did you think when you heard the word autism?
Initially there were some other diagnoses, and eventually it became something somewhere on the autism spectrum. We took it from there. The diagnosis didn’t change the treatment. It just gave us direction as a husband and wife and a way to make peace with who he was and why he was like that.

How did you and Ernie deal with the news?
As a woman, because historically we are the nurturers, I think it’s easier for us to accept and move on and so be it. Men are more analytical, saying things like ‘Why did it happen? How can I cure it? How can I stop it from happening to anyone else?’ I think the combination is what got us to the point where we wanted to put up this Center, so all those whys can be answered. On the other side, we can also take care of the kids who already have autism while we’re taking care of the whys.

Ben’s condition is just part of your life now. Are you at peace with that?
I think I always knew I was going to have a child with special needs. I don’t know why. I don’t have anyone with special needs in my family. I just knew if anybody was going to get that challenge, I probably would. I’ve always said whatever happens, whatever kids are given to us, we will be given the strength to deal with it. I strongly believe in that. Always have and always will. When I look at our daily life, our family situation, and especially at Samantha, this beautiful little girl who is good at everything she puts her hands onto, she’s just a wonderful, all-around child. Then I look at Ben, and Ben was given to us to keep our lives in perspective. Ben does not get affected by your bank balance. Ben doesn’t care about how many cameras flash in your face. He’s there to keep you sane. I shudder to think, really, what we would be like without Ben because of this fool’s paradise we live in. He comes to set the record straight. He’s the reality check. He’s so real and so true and so honest and so funny. He helps us to understand what’s really important and what life is really about.

As you’ve learned more about the autism spectrum, how did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to do something like the Els Center of Excellence?
That was a problem for us. If we just went into research, what are we going to do with the kids who are already out there? Schools are definitely lacking, and those that are in existence are all really, really struggling.

How did you land on what you’re proposing, with everything under, essentially, one roof?
We want to combine everything—the research side as well as the schooling side and the therapy. If you listen to a lot of these parents, they are driving half of their day taking their kids to therapy. Here, the therapy and school will all be under one roof. We can have a big sports facility so we can even have special sports education for the kids there, which, again, is something that currently we have to go elsewhere for. It’s either a half-hour north of us or a half-hour south of us. But if you show parents that this is all happening under one roof, I mean, how blissful. Let’s make their lives, which have already been turned upside down, as easy and as comfortable as we can.

You made the decision to go public with Ben’s issue. How difficult was that?
I have to admit that Ernie was the one who decided to go as public as we did two years ago. We had a conversation, and he said to me, ‘I think the time is right for us to openly talk about this.’ We never knew what a big impact that would have, especially the fact that it was Ernie talking about it. It affected so many males out there. The letters, the phone calls, the e-mails we got, even the responses I got just walking along the golf course from men who came up saying that I had no idea what it meant to them that Ernie spoke about this and shared his pain and the time it took for him to get over this. That made it all worthwhile.

How did things change for your family once you went public?
From that point, our life became completely crazy. It was like it was someone else’s life. There was a little bit of negative with questions about why we didn’t come out earlier. Why were we doing it now? It was like it was the first moment that Ernie and I realized that our son had something different about him. You can’t blame people. Everyone is so passionate about their kids and the help they’ve given their children. You just have to say, this is how we handle it.

With two years behind you after going public, are you used to being one of the faces of autism?
It was tough, just the madness. If you have to compare it to anything, it’s like winning a major. That madness that follows. It was similar to the madness of winning a major. The positives from it far, far outweighed the negatives, though. And in the beginning, I was the scared one. Should we? Shouldn’t we? I was still wanting to hide. Now I guess I’m leading the charge. Parents, charity, media. They wanted Ernie’s time all of a sudden, and they just didn’t want our time, they wanted the kids’ time, too. We knew that was going to happen, but we’re so fiercely protective of our children at the same time. We live a public life every day, so it’s weird. We are trying to protect the family, which is always the main concern and has always stayed the focus. But we want to give a little bit to help other people, and that is not a big suffering. That has to be said.

Autism is such a unique disorder, and it seems there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment. How will the Center help everybody who is touched by autism?
One of my main goals is that we have to listen to everyone. It’s probably impossible. But you have to take everyone’s advice, read it through, run it past your panel of advisors and the people who are supposed to know everything in every field. Is this a viable thing? Do you think this can work, even for just one child? If so, then we owe it to that one child to train him or her or school him or her in that method. We have to really concentrate on individually teaching each of these kids. It’s something that’s happening already, but we’d like to take it just that one step further.

You changed your life dramatically at the same time, moving from England back to the U.S. Wasn’t Ben’s situation the main reason?
We moved to America specifically for the schooling. Florida was always going to be our No. 1 choice, and we have an existing network of friends and colleagues down in this area. Of course we lived in Orlando prior, but this area has always been close to our hearts.

Was there a specific school that drew you here?
If you go down there, it’s a little, bitty place. It’s a one-story, pre-fab classroom, and they have 64 kids, with double that on the wait list. We found this perfect little school down the road, and it just all made sense for us to move here. It was the perfect spot. The teaching is great; it’s the facilities that are tough.

The Els Center of Excellence began taking shape in your minds then?
It was already fundraising for a $10-million school—but just a school. I started getting involved in that with them and helped with their fundraising. There is some wonderful, wonderful work being done research-wise out there, at the moment, and there are millions and millions of dollars being spent on it. But a much smaller proportion is being spent on the schooling of the kids. We really strongly thought we needed to put it into the school. We came up with a new idea. Why don’t we do the school and do a research facility. From there, we started talking, and it grew and grew and grew and it ended up being a $30 million-plus project.

So you go from helping with fundraising to it mushrooming into a $30-million project. How daunting has that been?
The number was daunting but the project is exciting. When you lay it out and you see what your fundraising scheme is and how you need to do it, all of a sudden it’s not that daunting anymore. If you tell someone you need $1 million from them tomorrow, it sounds tough. But if you ask someone if they would be willing to do a million dollars over five years—which would be $200,000 a year—towards a project that will after five years be self-sustainable, suddenly it’s a project with an end result.  That’s basically our main fundraising basis.

Will there be any other place in the world like what you’re proposing?
There aren’t any other centers that incorporate everything that we want to incorporate. It’s a good project. It has a huge future. It will be so wonderful if we can get one open to be a role model for others to follow. If people see something working, and it’s successful and not that hard to do, then people will be much more willing to be involved in the next project. That’s our aim—not just to build this one but in Africa and throughout the rest of the world.

The golf event is a major part of your fundraising goals. Are you impressed with the level of participation by your husband’s fellow pros who are willing to help?
Players are very sympathetic toward each other when it comes to things like this.  We do see us as part of a family. They know Ernie has the event, and they ask to help. The fact that he is out there and is so open about Ben makes it so you’re not going around explaining to people why you’re having this day. They already know Ernie’s son has autism. It’s heartwarming because a lot of the amateurs who are paying to play, 75 percent of the people who are coming have a family member or a friend who has a child who is affected by the autism spectrum.

At this point, autism is just a part of your family’s life. What’s a normal day like for Ben?
He wakes up very early in the morning and storms into the room and says good morning to everyone. We have a room in our house where he can play a car-driving video game. He loves that, and it’s perfect for me in early mornings because I can steer him there and he’ll be busy with that. Ernie will take Samantha to school, and Ben goes about a half an hour after her. He has a teacher who helps him out at school, and she goes for half a day to do some one-on-one teaching with him. Just a little bit of extra work. She’ll then bring him home in the afternoon after he’s had his sport at school. And then it’s whatever we can fit into the afternoon. His favorite thing to do is to go down to the beach to the turtle sanctuary. He’ll go and check out the turtles. He absolutely loves that, to see what they’re doing. He’ll spend about 45 minutes there, then if it’s a good day he goes to the beach for a while. He loves the ocean, loves the beach, loves the waves. His next favorite thing is the monkey bars. Then it’s dinner and bedtime. Ernie will give him a bath. It’s Ernie’s favorite thing to do. Ben’s not tough to put to bed. He loves his sleep. We just can’t keep him in bed in the morning.

Just a normal family, right?
I’m very lucky that I have help. We’ve always had someone who is here to assist me. It helps when we’re going in two different directions. In the mornings when Ben doesn’t have to be at school that early, depending on his therapy, I can take him with, drop Samantha at the bus stop, come back and take Ben to his bus—especially when Ernie is traveling. But on the mornings when he has to have an early morning, it’s a challenge and it’s always lovely to have an extra set of hands. Samantha is already 10 1/2 and she’s a big help. She’s very good with Ben, and you can send him to do a bunch of different things with her. She’s a normal 10 1/2-year-old. She’ll sometimes complain bitterly on the days when she doesn’t want to do it. But she’s very good with him, and she loves her brother. And he loves her.

Editor’s Note: The second annual Ernie Els for Autism Pro-Am was March 15 at PGA National Resort and Spa’s Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. To donate, click here

The United Nations has determined that April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. For more information, click here

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