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Features

Class act: The Els Center of Excellence

Major golf champion Ernie Els and his wife, Liezl, have developed a one-stop destination for families affected by autism.

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The Els Center of Excellence
The Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter, Fla., is a world-class facility with leading-edge programs and services, including two schools for students and young adults with autism. Photo courtesy of Pam Minelli


From start to finish, Alexis Daigle embraces the experience on Limestone Creek Road.

“She is full of hello and goodbye hugs,” says her father, Sean Daigle, of his daughter’s response to arriving at and departing school. “She adores the staff. Her teacher is remarkable. The dozens of people that are part of the team working with Alexis take things to the next level.”

Major golf champion Ernie Els and his wife, Liezl, make it possible. Their teenage son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism early on in his life, and in time, that would trigger a chain of bold events. The Els invested an initial $6 million to build The Els Center of Excellence, home to the Els for Autism Foundation and two Palm Beach County public charter schools in Jupiter, Fla., serving students age 3 to 22. (Read GCM’s Q&A with Els, winner of GCSAA’s 2018 Old Tom Morris Award.)

The goal: Create a one-stop destination for families who encounter autism, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication, and by restrictive and repetitive behavior. About one in 68 children in the U.S. has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ernie Els and son Ben
Ben Els was diagnosed with autism at a young age. The Elses have invested time and money to tackle autism, launching the Els for Autism Foundation eight years ago, and, more recently, building The Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter, Fla. Photo courtesy of The Els Group


“It’s shaping up to be what the global autism community wants and needs — a resource that changes the game for people with autism around the world,” says Liezl, who, with Ernie, launched the foundation in 2009. “We are private people, but also very much in the public eye and we recognize that this gives us a platform to help raise funds and awareness around the world.”

Daigle is one of 240 students at the schools, which opened in 2015. The 26-acre campus features an upper and lower school, and the windows in the soundproof classrooms are at a level where students cannot look out of them while sitting down, which helps them maintain focus.

“I never worry leaving my son (Foster) here,” says parent Kyle Henderson. “It’s like a big family, and they’re taking care of the kids. They get it. They’re building a community for our kids.”

Families have moved to Florida from as far away as South Africa to receive services at The Els Center of Excellence, says Pam Minelli, director of development. Gabriela Nonaka, behavioral technician at Mayra Gaiato Clinic in Brazil, was impressed by what she saw on a recent visit. “When I arrived there, I found out that everything was much more than I thought. One thing that really impressed me was the staff’s love and care about their students and clients,” Nonaka says. “They really work with responsibility and passion. The facility is a dream place for those who are on the autism spectrum — not only for the person, but for the extended family, friends and caregivers.”

The Els Center of Excellence is a dream job for Dr. Marlene Sotelo. “Families that come here leave different people. Parents leave with a different level of hope and feel they can do something for their child and be the agents of change,” says Sotelo, director of programs and operations. “When you see him (Ernie) on the golf course with these kids, you fall in love with his interaction with the kids. He doesn’t see autism; he just sees the kid. That’s half the battle — seeing the person.”

The Els Center of Excellence includes an auditorium, sensory arts garden and pavilion, playgrounds, and, of course, a golf facility. And there’s more to come, including a cafeteria and adult services building. Already, many students from the upper school have gone on to be employed at local businesses such as PSM, a supplier of technologically advanced aftermarket parts.

Els Center of Excellence
An indoor play area is part of the program for students at The Els Center of Excellence, where the aim is to develop life skills, encourage social interaction, and promote healthy living. Photo courtesy of Pam Minelli


Daigle, 10, embodies the center’s mission. As a baby, she didn’t crawl, and she couldn’t hold her bottle. Those were red flags for the Daigles. Today, their concerns have transitioned from the unknown to a more comfortable place, and it has much to do with what’s happening on Limestone Creek Road.

“Her (Alexis’) trajectory has changed dramatically in the last couple years. She’s become much more verbal, and her vocabulary has increased. She’s made progress physically, behaviorally and socially. It’s just a sense of relief that is hard to describe,” Sean Daigle says. “You want the best for your children regardless of their condition, so it’s important to have a high level of confidence in a place like this. It’s more than just a school.”


Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.