Northeast Times

Teeing is believing

For two visu­ally im­paired young­sters, meet­ing chal­lenges is par for the course.

Start­Frag­ment

Xavi­er and Al­ex­al­iz Melen­dez are no strangers to life on the green. The two loc­al sib­lings, ages 12 and 15, can of­ten be found on vari­ous golf courses throughout North­east Phil­adelphia. In fact, this Sat­urday, the duo will once again be prac­ti­cing their swings, at­tempt­ing holes in one, and par­ti­cip­at­ing in var­ied con­tests.

And they do it all des­pite a ser­i­ous visu­al impair­ment.

Xavi­er and Al­ex­al­iz will be at­tend­ing a golf clin­ic that’s part of the Blind Ju­ni­or Golf Pro­gram, a unique pro­gram for blind and visu­ally im­paired young­sters.

Sponsored by the Middle At­lantic Blind Golf As­so­ci­ation, the pro­gram is open to any young­ster in the tri-state area — and bey­ond — who is blind or visu­ally im­paired and wants to golf. It provides them with equip­ment — golf clubs, golf balls, golf bag — plus coach­ing with a PGA golf pro­fes­sion­al, all free of charge.

Twice a year, the young golfers get to­geth­er to golf on a  course at the Over­brook School for the Blind. Here they en­gage in sev­er­al com­pet­i­tions, while fam­ily and friends cheer them on. Af­ter­wards every­one en­joys a pizza party.

Both Xavi­er and Al­ex­al­iz have at­ten­ded past clin­ics and are look­ing for­ward to this Sat­urday.

“I like en­ter­ing the con­tests,” said Al­ex­al­iz, who proudly noted that so far, she’s won two trophies, claim­ing the “Closest to the Pin” com­pet­i­tion in 2009 and ’10.

The young­ster ad­ded that she also en­joys meet­ing oth­er visu­ally im­paired and blind young­sters who, like her, play golf en­er­get­ic­ally des­pite their dis­ab­il­it­ies.  

For Xavi­er, the put­ting con­test is his fa­vor­ite activ­ity. “And the coaches are really nice,” he said.  

Both broth­er and sis­ter have the same de­gen­er­at­ive con­di­tion, called ret­in­it­is pig­mentosa. Be­cause Xavi­er is older, his con­di­tion is now more ad­vanced.  He has no peri­pher­al vis­ion — only cent­ral vis­ion.

“There’s only a very nar­row area where he can see,” said his fath­er, Alex­is Melen­dez, who likened it to look­ing through a straw. “One eye has this very lim­ited fo­cus, and the oth­er eye has no vis­ion at all.”

Only one in 35,000 chil­dren suf­fers from this dis­ease, and there’s a 30-per­cent chance that it is in­her­ited. The Melen­dez’s old­est son, Steven, has nor­mal vis­ion. So his par­ents were taken by sur­prise when Xavi­er de­veloped ret­in­it­is pig­mentosa. He was five years old be­fore he ini­tially showed signs of visu­al impair­ment. By then Al­ex­al­iz had been born, and in time, she, too, de­veloped the con­di­tion.

Xavi­er is now in ninth grade at Over­brook School for the Blind, and his sis­ter at­tends Over­brook Edu­ca­tion­al Cen­ter, de­signed for blind and visu­ally im­paired young­sters up to grade six.

Both of them en­joy var­ied activ­it­ies in their re­spect­ive schools. Xavi­er es­pe­cially en­joys play­ing bas­ket­ball and wrest­ling, and his fa­vor­ite aca­dem­ic sub­ject is math. He uses com­puters both at school and at home; they are es­pe­cially geared to the needs of visu­ally im­paired users.

Al­ex­al­iz’s fa­vor­ite class is com­puter lab, and second place goes to so­cial stud­ies. The ver­sat­ile young­ster lays both the xy­lo­phone and the re­cord­er. And she en­joys play­ing Scrabble on Fri­days.

“I’m really good at it!” she de­clared proudly.

Their par­ents first learned about the golf pro­gram when Xavi­er brought home a fly­er from school.

“I thought it was a very in­ter­est­ing idea,” said Alex­is. His son and daugh­ter liked the idea, too, and so they were soon fit­ted with their own set of golf clubs and at­ten­ded their first clin­ic.

“I was sur­prised and amazed to see how the kids in the pro­gram could drive the ball so far,” Alex­is ex­plained.

The nine-hole chip and putt golf course on the cam­pus of Over­brook School for the Blind was de­signed by Nor­man Kritz of Cherry Hill, N.J., co-founder of the Ju­ni­or Blind Golf Pro­gram. Kritz is not visu­ally im­paired, however, has a long­stand­ing in­terest in com­munity ser­vice, es­pe­cially for youth. The oth­er co-founder is blind golfer Gil Kayson of Elkins Park.

“They put a lot of ef­fort in­to help­ing these kids and that’s just great,” said Alex­is. “It’s not easy to teach chil­dren to play golf, even without a dis­ab­il­ity. And it’s so much harder when they’re visu­ally im­paired. So my hats are off to them.”

The young­sters play on this golf course twice a year, in fall and spring. In between, many of them prac­tice at home or un­der­go coach­ing ses­sions.

Of course, there are modi­fic­a­tions for blind or visu­ally im­paired golfers. When they lay, the coach places the ball on the tee, and po­s­i­tions the play­er be­hind it, telling him or her the ap­prox­im­ate dis­tance to the hole. But then it’s up to the play­er to swing and fol­low through.

“I had some trouble at first be­cause I didn’t know how to play,” said Al­ex­al­iz. “So at first, I was a little nervous. But my coach taught me, and I thought it was fun.

“It helps give them more con­fid­ence,” ad­ded her fath­er. “It shows them that even though they can’t see well, they can still do things.”

Mean­while his son and daugh­ter are both ready and eager for Sat­urday’s golf activ­it­ies.

Al­ex­al­iz even hopes to take home an­oth­er trophy. “I’m go­ing to try my best to see if I can win an­oth­er one,” he said. “But even if I don’t win, I’m go­ing to have fun.” ••

 The Blind Ju­ni­or Golf pro­gram’s clin­ic will be held this Sat­urday, May 14 at the Over­brook School for the Blind, loc­ated at 63rd and Mal­vern Av­en­ue from 10 a.m. to noon, with free pizza to fol­low. It takes place rain or shine.

Par­ti­cipants should call in ad­vance so a coach can be ar­ranged for each golfer. For more in­form­a­tion, call Gil Kayson at 215-884-6589 or e-mail SAS­GIL@ve­r­i­zon.net or con­tact Nor­man Kritz at 856-428-1420 or 609-680-5480.

For in­form­a­tion on the Middle At­lantic Blind Golf As­so­ci­ation, vis­it web­site www.mabga.org 

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You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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