Episode 4 – Golf Glue

Darrell Dalton, ex nurse for acquired brain injury and senior PGA member, turned running the largest golf program for people with intellectual disabilities.
Not-for-profit Golf Programs Australia Inc is also an affiliate of the Special Olympics program. Darrell is joined by partner Michelle to chat about how the program works, the health and social benefits of playing golf.

Speaker 1: Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters, Dr. Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos and their guests in sharing experiences, information and support ideas to help children with disabilities flourish.

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Kristine Christ…: We welcome today Darrell and Michelle. Hi, guys.

Michelle Dalton: Hi.

Darrell Dalton: How you doing? My background’s in nursing, surgical, and the whole range of medical areas I suppose. The last position I held was managing the acquired brain injury unit here on the Sunshine Coast, but that was in my leave between graduating as a PGA professional and running a business in Koran in the hinterland here.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: [inaudible 00:01:11].

Kristine Christ…: Yeah, we’re going to get onto that PGA professional. It links you into what we’re going to be talking about today, doesn’t it?

Michelle Dalton: Yes, it does.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Tell us a bit about your background then, Darrell.

Darrell Dalton: Okay. Well, we’ll concentrate on the PGA background. I guess in 1979, I come from Darwin. I traveled from Darwin to Sydney to begin a PGA apprenticeship. At that time, it was four years. I took a position up at Lanco Country Club in Sydney.

And 18 months into my apprenticeship, my mum had a stroke. So I had to give up my apprenticeship because the PGA Pro I was working under, he just couldn’t afford to have me missing for I guess a month. I said, “Look.” I ended up hitching back to Darwin and nursing mum, and I guess that was a segue into my working in the hospital area in nursing.

From there, I gave up golf for many years, but used to play the occasional game when I was doing my nursing training. And gave up my career aspirations in golf until I retired from nursing in medical in ’96, essentially. And came to the Sunshine Coast, signed up for a degree in political science and journalism.

When I was at university, I joined the Nambour Golf Club, which had a cheap membership for university students. Joined up, ended up winning the whole

range of events, club champs and all that sort of stuff. And I was well into my late 30s at the stage.

Anyway, the PGA trainee at the time was graduating, and the pro approached me and said, “Would you like to take up his position when he graduates?” I said, “Well, no, I’m too old for a start.” And he said, “No, no, you’ve still got game and you’re here most of the time anywhere playing golf. Have a think about it. Come back to me in a week.”

Look, I did consider it and went through the whole avenue of going down that path, which is quite complicated. There’s a whole range of things that you need to do. You need to, number one, have a position, which I had. And number two, you have to have a playing average of three or less. And then you have to have a playing test, and then you have to go before a board of PGA members to be accepted. Went through all that, was accepted and graduated in 2000 as a PGA professional.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: What a story?

Michelle Dalton: Yes. Now there’s more to that because we’re second marriage. I met Darrell through a six-foot four golfer called Phil Wilton, who was that Nambour Golf Club. And I was in Brisbane with two little boys, a single mom at the time. And I had been on my own seven years, never wanted to marry, never, ever knew anything about golf.

And the night that he came back, he borrowed my friend’s car to go to the Gold Coast because his probably wouldn’t make it. He had hooked us up to actually meet each other. He had been secretly putting us together. And so, I actually was a deputy bailer for the magistrates court in Brisbane. I was a person that would issue a warrant. Or I’d get issued a warrant, I’d arrest you and seizes your goods and your channels. I was a little bit independent.

I met Darrell the night that he came back, and he had been accepted as one of the oldest trainee golfers to resurrect his game that he’d lost as a young man. It was quite serendipitous that we ended up going into a ministry, if you will, to use golf. And of course, he had to teach me how to hold a club.

I’m Greek too, Kristine, so my parents said, “Yes, but what does he do every other day but Sunday?” I said, “No, he’s a professional.” “Professional what?”

Kristine Christ…: Yeah.

Michelle Dalton: You understand.

Kristine Christ…: Yes, I do.

Michelle Dalton: But that’s what’s interesting. When Darrell actually became accepted as this amazing opportunity had come around twice, that’s the day that I meet him. It was amazing.

Darrell Dalton: Yeah, it was amazing.

Michelle Dalton: [inaudible 00:05:10].

Dr. Lisa Interl…: He would’ve been in a very good mood, I imagine.

Michelle Dalton: Yeah.

Darrell Dalton: Yeah. I’ll get into how we got into the disability sector. And that was, I was called back to the Nambour Golf Club where I did my traineeship. And I’d been gone a couple of years, managed the Acquired Brain Injury Unit. And I came back to the Sunshine Coast, I guess to Nambour.

And I was asked to run the junior program at Nambour Golf Club because when I left after my traineeship, the junior program had fallen away. I was asked to come back to resurrect the junior program and to give the lessons for the members.

During that time, not long after I returned, I heard there was a call by the Special Olympics. And you may know something about that organization. I heard that they wanted a golf program to begin, but no one was putting their hand up to do it. After a couple of weeks of I heard the call go out quite often. No one was answering the call. And then I said, “Well, now it’s something I could do. I’m a nursing background and the PGA status. I could deliver a program or start a program.”

I contacted the sports coordinator on the Sunshine Coast here, Shirley Hastings. We got together and came up with a plan to establish the Sunshine Coast First Golf program for the Special Olympics.

Michelle Dalton: In this region.

Darrell Dalton: On the Sunshine Coast. And I guess that’s where it all began. And now from that, starting in 2014, we have grown that. We’ve become our own standalone charity, which is Golf Programs Australia Incorporated. And we run the largest golf program for people with intellectual disabilities in the country. And we are also a Special Olympics affiliate.

Michelle Dalton: Which is unusual.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Yeah. And how many people are participating in [inaudible 00:06:54]?

Darrell Dalton: Oh, look, we have over 40 on our database and on our books, but on a weekly basis, we get between 18 to 25 to 30 athletes attend on a weekly basis. On top of that, accompanying them would be their support workers, my assistant coaches, volunteers, and family members. We can have up to 70 to 80 people there on a weekly basis.

Kristine Christ…: What do you think they love about-

Michelle Dalton: That’s lovely mayhem, organized chaos.

Kristine Christ…: Yeah. What do you think they love about it the most about playing the sport?

Michelle Dalton: How long do we have today, Kristine?

Darrell Dalton: This is where I guess the personal testimonies come in. And we have so many. And what it means for our athletes and their families to plug into our program on a weekly basis. And it’s life-changing for many. Creating a sense of community, I guess, coming together just with their peers.

And there’s all the levels of competency as far as golf ability is concerned. We have people in wheelchairs, people that have acquired brain injury, suffering from a stroke, and a whole range of other things, like could be Down syndrome, William syndrome, autism, whatever it may be. But everyone is on a level playing field.

The way that we format the weekly program, we have a format called an Ambrose. The way it rocks is that we have people register at 3:45 at our private golf course where we lease that on a monthly basis. They rock up with the support workers, they register. We have a registration table there with a pull-up banner. And Michelle and one of our participants, usually Renee or Sophie.

Michelle Dalton: She’s the registration assistant.

Darrell Dalton: Or Caitlin will help registration. They’ll welcome all the participants in and mark them off on the sheet. And then, once we’ve all gathered, and by four, probably five pass four, everyone is asked to go out onto the course to begin their warmup.

And then from there, we’ll have, once the warm-ups complete, I’ll appoint four captains or five captains from within that group. They will then select their team players from the group. And it’s usually between five to six, depending on the numbers that we have for the day in each group.

The captain’s appointed. The captain then appoints a safety officer from within their team. And all these positions are very highly regarded, by the way. Then my assistant coaches, once the groups are formed, I’ll get my assistant coaches to take a group, their particular group out to their respective hole.

And then, once everyone’s out on their respective hole, we then blow the whistle and we start at the same time and finish at the same time. It’s a lot of fun, let me tell you.

Kristine Christ…: Just-

Dr. Lisa Interl…: My husband’s a golfer.

Kristine Christ…: Oh, is he?

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Yes, a lot. Even though he’s reasonably good. Not as good as you though, Darrell. He’s reasonably good. I know how frustrating it can be and how you have to concentrate when you play and all that sort of stuff. What are the benefits, do you think of playing golf for people with an intellectual disability or any disability in effect?

Darrell Dalton: Well, it’s on so many levels. First of all, of course, we have the coming together and just forming that community. That is that social and community access, I guess. It’s a big part of just coming together and breaking that isolation.

From a health perspective, of course, the low impact of golf is good. Just that movement, fresh air, sunshine, vitamin D. And ah, look, where do I start? There’s just so many areas where are so beneficial for our people.

But not only the participants in the program, but also we have volunteers and assistant coaches that also may suffer from isolation and, or other issues like depression or whatever it may be. It works on many levels, not just with our golfers, but also with our volunteers as well.

Michelle Dalton: Can I share in there? We have a couple of instances. We got a call from a physiotherapy. we are the outreach in the office, in the store. And outreach means we’re dealing with the people that may never have considered golf for their son or daughter.

The store that we have in town, in Nambour is a retail store. Nearly six years we’ve been here and we’ve grown hugely. Now downstairs, we’ve renovated and we have a charity Pro shop that’s large and about to double. And we also have a studio where we do design. And the furniture and the cushions for upstairs are all made downstairs by our guys. And it’s like their design studio, their golf charity shop.

But we got a call from a physiotherapist and they said, “Look, this fellow is not doing well. He’s had a stroke 12 years ago, but he was a golfer. We’re hoping you can do something.” Well, Darrell ended up knowing him, and he used to be a high ranking golfer. He’s got his name up at the board at Nambour.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Wow.

Michelle Dalton: And he won’t mind us sharing this part. Of course, he just loves it. Now, the interesting thing there is that he has a joke with us. His memory here and there may be scattered, but his memory to play golf is there. His joyfulness that he obviously packed away somewhere in his heart and mind comes out.

And he and his carer, Rowena, I tell you what. We have a cart that the owners bring their own golf cart because it’s a private course, so it literally doesn’t have carts. They bring their own cart for him to get out there because he has one leg that is actually, he’s incapacitated in one leg.

Darrell Dalton: Wow.

Michelle Dalton: And one arm. But it changed his life. Now he’s like, he buys our Buderim Ginger, which is very important. He comes to the counter and he buys his ginger. But he goes out and he just plays.

Now here’s the thing. One of our people is a second generation disability athlete, talks a lot and probably gets a little picked on. We are very cautious to work on that sportsmanship and comradery. He ended up taking to this young man, and I think shocked all of us. He just took to him. You never know who they’re going to connect with. This is an older gentleman with a young guy that talks a lot and yada, yada, yada. He just loves him. He thinks he’s the best thing.

Now all of a sudden, you’ve got people that would never have met and certainly would never played golf. For me, as an outsider, this is huge. That’s what I do. I watch the emotional and the mental benefits because we… Darrell’s the physical and the rest as well.

But I’m always getting the story and where the families come up and they’ll cry. And, “He’s been depressed for 10 years, nothing works. Or they won’t play with teams.” Well, they play on their own. And slowly, Darrell will increase their level of eye contact. We used to work on eye contact.

Darrell Dalton: Oh, we still do.

Michelle Dalton: We still do. We also, over the years, found that they would talk to us, the support workers, family and volunteers. They wouldn’t quite often engage with one another. Now they engage with one another and allow us in.

Kristine Christ…: Wow. Yeah.

Michelle Dalton: And that’s a huge thing I want to get across. That is a very different development. And that’s eight years of experience that taught us we are inclusive. Which means some of our people have part-time jobs and come in their car. And they play alongside someone that is non-verbal, could be a stroke, lack of memory, or has some other issues.

And what Darrell has built is the largest genuine, inclusive golf program. And it’s the biggest thing I want to leave today with because inclusivity is this word and we hear it banded about. I’m into testimonies. You give me the people that have changed because they’ve been included.

And I think Darrell and his team do an amazing job that they have really built. Golf is the glue we call it. And it glues all of us together, no matter where we come from, no matter what background.

Some of our volunteers used to get in the car 10 and 20 times to volunteer because they suffered anxiety. We didn’t know that. But they were given to us to help them come out of their house.

Kristine Christ…: Benefits both sides. And I think the other thing which we find, having older adults now, the exercise they’re getting. Which you can’t tell a 22-year-old or a 30-year-old go and exercise.

Michelle Dalton: No.

Kristine Christ…: Because they won’t do it. They probably don’t even realize how many steps they’re doing, how they’re getting the fresh air. That’s the other thing about golf.

Michelle Dalton: Correct.

Kristine Christ…: It’s the exercise they’re getting as well without pushing it on them.

Michelle Dalton: Yeah.

Darrell Dalton: A good example of that is we had a fellow that was morbidly obese when he joined the program. He was part of another group of seven people from this individual group that specialized in the disability sector. They plugged into our program.

Now, this fellow, initially he was non-verbal and very, very overweight. And when he started our program, he wouldn’t even play golf, but he would gently walk around. And a year and a half later, he had lost probably…

Michelle Dalton: More than half his body weight.

Darrell Dalton: More than half his body weight.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Wow.

Darrell Dalton: And it was just getting him moving and getting him walking. And got him to the stage where he only just walked around with a support worker while the others played, to the point where he then began playing golf.

Michelle Dalton: And then his communication increased, and then we realized he had the greatest sense of humor, we just had to understand what he would say. And that’s another thing. We’ve had to learn facilitator communication is real. And we had to learn, it’s quite amazing how we had to adapt. That’s why Special Olympics has been good for us. We were trained by them as well. We’ve done our training.

Darrell Dalton: All of my assistant coaches, they’re from very many varying backgrounds, people that have retired, people that professional sports people, and tradies. They just want to contribute in some way. They played a bit of social golf and they just plug into the program.

And that said, the people that plug in like that, the rewards that they get, and they feel as if they’re contributing and making an impact on somebody’s life, a positive impact. It’s a fantastic program.

Michelle Dalton: So much to share with you, we need 10 hours.

Darrell Dalton: Well, that’s right. I guess with what we’ve built over the last eight years, the result is our vision. And that’s most important because that’s where we are looking at growing Golf Programs Australia Inc. And I now have enlisted the support of the PGA, Golf Australia and the Special Olympics, which are national organizations. PGA being my organization.

And PGA and the golf industry is a tough nut to crack. And of course, the PGA brand, is regarded as very, very high end and valuable. And to align their brand with our small charity is a big, big step. We’ve just, we self-funded to do a 12-minute documentary.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Nice.

Darrell Dalton: Which now has the CEO of the PGA, Golf Australia and the Special Olympics as national bodies getting behind our purpose-built golf facility vision. And that’s where we will have our first purpose built golf course here on the Sunshine Coast. And we can provide training and employment for up to 100 people with intellectual disabilities specifically. But also offer other programs such as now for the youth at risk, the aged, PTSD, mental health programs, indigenous programs.

Kristine Christ…: Well, it seems like you’ve covered a lot of areas. And we’ve been very grateful to have you on our podcast today. We can’t wait to see this move to Victoria for ourselves, but also across the country. And we will keep everyone updated on our social media when that comes about. But good luck with everything you’re doing. It’s amazing what you’re doing.

Michelle Dalton: Thank you, Kristine. Thank you, Lisa.

Dr. Lisa Interl…: Yeah, what a great story.

Kristine Christ…: Yeah.

Darrell Dalton: Yeah, thank you. And the work that you guys are doing as well. I mean, look, I had a chance to get on to and listen to a couple of your podcasts. And yeah, no, just wonderful. Love what you guys are doing as well.

Kristine Christ…: Thank you, guys. Thanks.

Michelle Dalton: Thank you.

Kristine Christ…: All the best.

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