Autism golf tournament

From left, organizers William Austin, Wayne Bartley and North Creek Golf Club head golf professional Alan Hickam are planning the 20th anniversary Autism Golf Tournament, set for April 25. More than $350,000 has been raised for autism programs in North Mississippi through the annual fundraiser.

Over the past several years, support for families with autism has grown significantly in DeSoto County, an area that has become a state leader in addressing the issue.

The local school district’s special education programs have attracted residents to come into the county specifically to take advantage of those programs. There is also an active organization, called Arc of Northwest Mississippi, that sponsors programs and outreach to help those with autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities. 

The need is there and it is growing, because latest figures indicate that one in 40 children born today are born with some part of the autism spectrum.

An Olive Branch resident and father of a young man with autism, now age 23, about two decades ago faced the issue.

So, Wayne Bartley did something about it: he played golf.

Actually Bartley, joined by William Austin and others, put together a fundraiser golf tournament specifically geared toward raising autism awareness.

Twenty years later, the golf event at North Creek Golf Club in Southaven reaches a significant milestone as about 140 golfers tee off April 25 with all proceeds to support autism programs in North Mississippi.

“Please contact me fast because I sell out within 30 days of the golf tournament,” Bartley said this week. “It will end up selling out. It’s a great event and we’ll go over $350,000 that we have raised in 20 years with this year.”

Bartley said the tournament will benefit several areas.

“We have an account with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi that is called the Autism Assistance Fund,” he explained. “All of the money flows into that account and then we do grants every year for a variety of programs. For instance, last year, we did 25 iPads for North Mississippi special education teachers. Now, we’ve gone out and got almost 150 iPads that we’ve donated and are in the school system. Use the multiplier on that, that’s 1,000 kids that have benefitted from that.”

With the growing number of people with autism, all aging from childhood into adulthood, Bartley said the event now addresses needs for adults with autism as well as children.

“We’ve also started to work more on the adult side because you’re looking at in the next 10 years, half a million kids that will turn 21 that have autism alone,” he said. “We’re working with several different day programs, we’re starting some community gardens and we’ve also taken some of the money to the Arc Northwest Mississippi and they some several programs for all ages and we support them.”

Add to that a pair of grants each year that go to the Foundation for Excellence in Education program through the DeSoto County Economic Development Council and the spectrum for support is as wide as the autism spectrum itself.

Austin gives Bartley the credit for what has become a popular fundraising event.

“It started out as a shoestring, bootstrap kind of tournament,” Austin said. “But, because of him, what he’s been through and what he’s done for other people, it has become a great event.”

And, Alan Hickam, North Creek’s head golf professional, said it has become his club’s best tournament of the year.

“Everybody that plays in this tournament, they don’t care if they win or lose,” Hickam said. “They know what it is for. We get people who call all the time and ask, ‘when is Wayne’s tournament?’”

Past tournaments have featured time spent between golfers and autistic youngsters. That will not happen this year, but when it does happen, golfers get to see what they are really playing for.

“All it took was one time for a group of his buddies to see the clubhouse full of autistic children and their parents to understand the day-to-day struggle that’s involved in taking care of a special needs child,” Austin said. “Every man who came out here to play golf was touched. This is one golf tournament where you see the cause that you’re supporting right there in front of you.”

Bartley encourages interested golfers to contact him as soon as possible to be a part of the event. Bartley’s phone number is 901-550-1351.

With the growing number of children and adults, and their families, dealing with autism, the time, money, and golf shots will be well spent.

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.