‘I feel sad that I’ve missed out’: Why Huntsville’s Community Golf at Deerhurst matters

Image shows a group of 14 smiling people in matching orange T-shirts and red hats standing outside. A sign behind them reads: Deerhurst Lakeside Golf Bag Drop.

Community Golf members and mentors, shown here in a previous year’s photo, say they look forward to returning to the Deerhurst Resort Lakeside Golf Course as soon as public health measures allow for close contact. (Photo submitted by Gary Donald)

Margo Cybulski is eager to hit the links – but she and her fellow Community Golf members in Huntsville will have to wait.

“I like the fresh air and exercise,” says Margo. “And hitting the ball. It’s a good way to get rid of stress.”

She misses her friends, too.

Community Golf, created and led by community members in collaboration with Deerhurst Resort, has connected golfers labelled with developmental disabilities to volunteer mentors once a week for skills development, fun and fellowship since 2010.

But the golfers and mentors, who consider themselves friends through the relationships they have built, last met at Deerhurst’s Lakeside Golf Course in September 2019. The COVID-19 public health crisis, and the restrictions that came with it, have put the initiative indefinitely on hiatus since March 2020.

Margo, a dedicated athlete who previously competitively bowled with Special Olympics, had to set her golf clubs aside, like many others across Ontario, amid public health concerns and provincial restrictions. And even as the province allowed golf courses and other outdoor recreational amenities to reopen in May 2021, the Community Golf members and mentors have to continue to wait until public health restrictions, especially around physical distance, further loosen.

“She misses going, and she misses the companionship,” says Debbie Cybulski, Margo’s mom. “And I think it’s important for them to get out. They don’t get to meet each other very often, and experience and learn new things. And it’s a way to kind of be independent and do something that is their own.”

Ryan O’Connor, who has golfed with the group from the start, echoes that sentiment.

“I’ve been there to get out of my house. I need exercise, I like the sport and I’ve made some good friends,” says Ryan. “And they (the mentors) are nice to me.”

The hiatus makes him sad.

“I feel sad that I’ve missed out, and I miss my friends,” says Ryan. “I would hope that it would start back again because I love playing it and love talking to my friends. They are like family to me.”

Gary Donald, who founded the group, and his fellow mentors Roy Miller, Ron Baker, Bob Burrows, Rick Wardell, Tony Bright and Roy Montgomery are equally eager to relaunch the activity when able.

Gary first pitched the Community Golf idea to Deerhurst Resort’s director of golf after having volunteered with a similar initiative in southern Ontario. Golf, he says, had always offered him, personally, an opportunity to get active, have fun and meet people, so it seemed the perfect activity.

The resort was immediately on board. “Deerhust has been phenomenal,” says Gary. The resort now volunteers weekly use of the course, carts, practice facilities and leisure space for Community Golf with a welcoming attitude that mentors say is vital to the initiative’s success.

Gary then reached out to Community Living Huntsville with the proposal and soon the inaugural season was underway with four golfers and three mentors. Activities started on the driving range, plus chipping and putting practice, but over the years have evolved to playing a few holes on the course, followed by refreshments and social conversation. There are now eight golfers and six mentors.

The sport, however, seems mostly a conduit through which the golfers and mentors build natural friendships and meaningful community connections.

Roy Miller, one of the founding mentors, says he, personally, embraced golf in retirement largely for socialization – “it allows you to meet new people” – and to keep himself busy. He signed on as a Community Golf mentor for the same reasons.

He had a previous association with Community Living, too, and understood the organization’s purpose of fostering inclusiveness for people to live, work and play in unique and purposeful ways as well.

Even so, Community Golf has had a profound effect.

“Once it got started, I think it really hit home for the mentors because we ended up getting just as much out of it as the golfers did,” he says.

Gary and Roy, for example, fondly reminisced about a former golfer with a driver he named Big Dog, who they lightheartedly likened to Happy Gilmore, an exuberant movie character played by Adam Sandler that treats his tee offs as high-powered hockey slap shots.

“‘Laugh’ is an important word,” says Roy. “It is absolutely the most fun anyone could ever have, once you get out there. The golfers have a ‘joie de vivre’ that is hard to beat.”

He says the hiatus has felt awful and the restrictions on social interaction over the past year have been difficult for everybody.

Gary agrees.

“It’s been tough for us, and we’re the privileged ones. We are still struggling with the whole idea of not being able to do anything, or go anywhere, or see our grandchildren, et cetera,” he says. “And our friends at Community Living are struggling a lot more.”

Advocates, like Community Living Huntsville, have noted children and adults labelled with developmental disabilities faced physical and social isolation well before the pandemic struck, and argued provincial and public health restrictions over the past 14 months had set work toward inclusion immeasurably back, as cancelled activities, events and in-person social interaction hampered relationships and clouded mental health.

Gary says he hopes to offer alternate physically distanced activities soon for Community Golf players and mentors until public health measures sufficiently loosen to allow for the close contact they, as a group, need on the course.

Whatever the decision, provincial and public health measures will be respected by the golfers and mentors. And fun will remain at the core.

“When I set it (Community Golf) up, I had 10 steps of learning – how to swing, keep your head down, be respectful – trying to teach ideas,” says Gary. “But the final one was, ‘Have Fun.’”

And Roy agrees that’s what it’s all about.

“Really, golf is the excuse to have fun with our friends,” he says.

Community Living Huntsville is a not-for-profit, registered charity that supports and advocates alongside people with developmental disabilities to live, work and play in unique and purposeful ways in North Muskoka.

(Correction June 7, 2021: This story has been edited from a previous version to state Margo Cybulski was a competitive bowler with Special Olympics, not a competitive golfer)

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