Oftentimes you don’t think about it. A beverage at a convenience store costs $2.25 and if you happen to be paying in cash (a rarity these days), you throw the extra .75 into a tip jar or a can for those who might come up a little short later in the day. That kind of giving is so impetuous and frequent that you don’t even think about it. But for one charity, rounding up to the next dollar has had a huge impact in recent years.
You probably know of it. If you’ve been around golf at all, you have at least heard of Els for Autism, the foundation created by Ernie Els and his wife Liezl in 2009 after their son, Ben, who was born with autism in 2002, reached school age. The couple’s daughter, Samantha, was two years old at the time, and Ernie had just won his first Open Championship at Muirfield before Ben was born. As a family, they were thrust into a world they didn’t know or understand. They also realized that they were not alone in that struggle.
Because of Ernie’s fame and their resources, the Els put their efforts into creating a foundation to help those on the autism spectrum.
Els for Autism began as a pro-am at PGA National near the family’s home in Florida. The first event was so successful it raised $750,000.
Today, the foundation helps support the Els Center for Excellence, a 26-acre facility in the Jupiter, Florida, area that is, as Liezl calls it, “a safe haven and a one-stop shop for everybody on the spectrum and their families.” Because of the work taking place at that center, children who had not been able to speak now are carrying on conversations at the dinner table – and in the case of Ben Els, picking up some salty language from his father’s golf partners – while those in high school or young adults are getting jobs, some at local golf courses. There are occupational therapy and speech pathologists; psychiatrists and psychologists; teachers and nurses: a panoply of staff available to help those who have autism and those who care for them.
But it’s not just the facility that Els for Autism funds and supports. According to Paige Thomas, who is the director of events at Els for Autism, “It’s really important for what we do that people know that we have a national and global reach. This isn’t just a Jupiter, Florida-centered charity. Our goal is to support the autism community at large, including in other countries.
“The goal and mission of Els for Autism is to transform the lives of people with autism and those who care for them. We’re not focusing on one end of the spectrum. We are providing help and services to everyone who is on the spectrum and to those who are involved in caring. Whether it’s a mom or dad or grandparent, if you are a caregiver, we are providing support to all of them.”
The pro-am continues to be a major fundraiser, and professionals from the PGA Tour and the PGA Tour Champions devote their time and resources to helping. But that isn’t the only arm for raising money and awareness.
“It is so important to have individual clubs involved,” Thomas said. “We have Golf Challenge events throughout the month of April, which is Autism Awareness Month. And so many of the clubs that host our Golf Challenge events, their staffs have connections to autism, so they have a personal investment in what we are doing. Because of that, the level of hospitality at places like Philadelphia Country Club, they go above and beyond for our events. That makes it extra special for our corporate sponsors and our grassroots fundraisers. It makes our events a little less charity driven and more straight-from-the-heart, if that makes sense.
“I like to tell people that we are not (hosting) the typical charity outing. We’re not here to nickel-and-dime you at every turn. We’re here to make this experience really great for you and provide you with a lot of great networking opportunities.
“Most of our fields are composed of C-Suite-level executives in the technology industry and the golf industry. So (the events) become this opportunity for all of them to get together in one place at one time and not just get business done on the golf course but also support an amazing charity and Ernie and his family, who are doing incredible work in the field of autism.”
So, what does this have to do with spare change?
Well, one of the nation’s biggest golf management companies has partnered with Els for Autism in a way that provides extraordinary resources to the charity. Arcis Golf, which operates 70 clubs and courses throughout the country, has, for four years now, offered something called its “Round Up” program. Thomas described it this way: “Throughout their 70 clubs during month of April, Arcis incorporates a round-up feature into their point-of-sales systems, so that any purchase, whether it’s food and beverage, or rounds of golf, or anything in the pro shop, can be rounded up to the nearest dollar. That ‘round up’ will be donated to Els for Autism.”
If the sleeve of balls you pick up on your way out costs $15.50, you can round up the extra 50 cents to Els for Autism. If a post-round beer is $4.60, you can throw four more dimes toward Ernie and Liezl’s foundation.
It doesn’t sound like much, but as Thomas points out, “The volume at their clubs and the commitment of their management, especially (Arcis founder and CEO) Blake Walker, in getting buy-in from all their members and employees, has been phenomenal. We spend time with the GMs of all the (Arcis) clubs teaching them about what Els for Autism does. And if they have someone who needs assistance from Els for Autism, they have a direct line to us.
“They have been doing it since 2018. This year it was really impactful. They raised almost $180,000 just through that round-up feature.”
That isn’t the only way Arcis gets involved. Two of the company’s clubs, The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge, outside Seattle, and Cowboys Golf Club, near Dallas, were selected as sites of Els for Autism Golf Challenge regional events, while five others – The Club at Weston Hills, in Florida; The Club at Ruby Hill, in California; Lantana Golf Club, in Texas; and The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge, in Washington State – have each donated a full-year golf membership. Those memberships are sold at auction with proceeds going to the charity.
“The Els for Autism Foundation funds important programs that are the leading examples of what can be available to people with autism spectrum disorder,” Walker said. “Thanks to the generosity of staff, members, and guests at all our clubs, we are proudly supporting its initiatives and research.”
The charity’s Golf Challenge Regional Event series encompasses between 14 and 16 fundraisers a year, and there are other management companies, like Troon, involved in supporting the charity – but none to the extent of Arcis.
"The leadership, members, and customers of Arcis Golf are wonderful supporters and advocates for our Foundation,” Ernie said. “These funds will help further our mission and services. By simply rounding up a transaction or participating in events at their courses, thousands of people have made an impact on the lives of those impacted by autism spectrum disorder.”
Mrs. Els put the impact in more personal terms. “Ben was given to us as a gift to open our eyes to the little things in life and to make us realize that you were put on this earth to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Liezl said. “It’s an amazing journey that he’s taken us on. And I’m excited to see what the future brings.”
You can learn more or make a donation at ElsForAustism.org