Golfing great Ernie Els expands Jupiter campus to help people with autism

JUPITER — It all started with a logo. On a golf bag.

Ernie Els had just won the 2008 Honda Classic. During his interview, he was asked about the Autism Speaks logo on his bag. Els then opened up about her young son, Ben, who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder a few years earlier.

That conversation stayed with a friend, Marvin Shanken, who had known Els for about 15 years at the time and said it was the first time he “heard Ernie speak publicly about Ben.”

The wheels started turning. Shanken asked Ernie to raise money to help find a cure for autism. Ernie was on board. But there was an even stronger and more powerful defender.

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“Liezl doesn’t take no for an answer,” Shanken said of Liezl Els, Ernie’s wife. “It’s his vision.”

This vision continues to grow. The Els for Autism Foundation was established in 2009 by Liezl and Ernie, with considerable help from Shanken, now chairman of the board, who raised the funds. The Els Center of Excellence, two charter schools located on a 26-acre campus specifically designed to create a learning environment for children on the spectrum, opened six years later.

And on Monday, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the same campus for the Stoops Family Foundation Adult Services Building, which will serve adults with autism.

“We have big dreams,” Ernie said.

Ernie and Liezl Els moved to the area to help their son Ben, who has autism

Els, 52, is a Hall of Famer and former world number one. He has won four major tournaments and more than 70 events around the world. He has found tournament golf rewarding after 50 years, currently No. 9 on the PGA Tour champions money list.

But as he gets older, the priorities start to change. Since establishing their primary residence in Palm Beach County shortly after Ernie won this Honda in 2008, few have made as much of an impact in our area as Ernie and Liezl.

“We came here for the sole purpose of giving Ben the best possible chance,” Ernie said. “We just wanted to have the best for our son. As a parent, you just want the best for your child.”

The Els for Autism Foundation led to the Center of Excellence, which provides programs and services to more than 300 children and adults affected by autism. But it wasn’t enough.

More than 70,000 people diagnosed with autism turn 18 every year. These people have difficulty finding ongoing support and jobs. About 75% are unemployed.

It resonated with Liezl and Ernie as 19-year-old Ben grew older. A few years ago they started talking about building an adult center on campus. After some hurdles and delays due to COVID-19, the final push came from two primary donors, Jeffrey and Aggie Stoops and Cindy and Randy Langenfeld. Jeffrey Stoops is the CEO and President of SBA Communications of Boca Raton. Cindy Langenfeld is president of Asurion Corp. in Nashville. The Langenfelds credit the Els Foundation with transforming the life of their autistic daughter.

“It’s not something you don’t suddenly have once you’re 22,” Liezl said. “It’s a lifetime…although it’s seen as a liability for us, we think it’s a huge ability.

“But it will probably be with you all your life and for us it was important to provide something for these young adults, a place to go, a safe haven where they can train and be able to find jobs. meaning. Just to make their dreams come true too, and not lock them into something that society thinks they should be in.”

Liezl and Ernie Els at Monday's groundbreaking for the Stoops Family Foundation Adult Services Building at the Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter.  Photo Tom D'Angelo

Young adults like Merrick Egber, who insisted he could be an asset to the foundation and emailed how he could help.

Now Egber works on data, runs a podcast and writes blogs, and serves as an administrative assistant and chair of the advisory board.

Egber was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“I’m one of many voices that really want to feel wanted and nurtured,” he said.

The $7.1 million adult center is slated to open in 2023. Some say summer. Liezl said earlier.

“We have an emergency as parents,” she said. “And we really want it done yesterday.”

Ernie, meanwhile, has played 41 events since joining the Tour Champions in 2020 and has finished in the top 10 in more than half (21). Each time he uses the platform to raise awareness of his cause.

But Ernie doesn’t need to play another round of golf to validate what has been a Hall of Fame career and a career that will leave a legacy on two fronts.

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