By: Jenn K
For the past three summers, Cullen has been an active participant with Special Olympics East Hawaii Golf. Started nine years ago by local golfer and entrepreneur, Coach George Lewitzki, interested athletes have been learning about every aspect of this sport and about each other, making for new and lasting friendships. This year, the group was at its largest with 17 athletes. They met every Friday at 2:00 from June through August at the Banyans Golf Club. It isn’t considered one of the best on the island but it does serve this group well. It’s never crowded on practice days and the majority of other golfers are very respectful of athletes’ speed of play and abilities. The athletes have also learned a lot about patience, an important aspect of golf etiquette.
Cullen originally joined the group not long after its inception, when he was in middle school. Back then, I was working full-time and relied upon his Community Based Provider and my oldest son to get him to and from practices. Unfortunately, he would have nothing to do with it. We tried again the following year with much of the same result.
A year after graduating from high school, I decided that it was time for him to try again. I didn’t expect him to be excited but I did expect him to actually complete the season. Which he did, thankfully. It couldn’t have been accomplished without the patience and care of his coaches, including Mark and Berta, and new golf buddies.
At the end of each season, there is a really fun golf tournament, followed by an awards luncheon. The rules of the game are pretty typical of most tournaments around the island except the Special Olympics athletes are allowed to tee off closer to the green, depending on ability. Each athlete is part of a foursome with three other golfers, usually family members or friends but mostly consisting of George’s friends in the Hilo golfing community. There are a lot of them! The outpouring of support for the tournament is nothing short of amazing.
Upon returning home after each tournament, Cullen parks his golf bag, where it stays until the following June. It may or may not be out of the way but it is where it remains. He only plays golf during the season.
George attributes much of the success of his program to his assistant coach, Mark, and others who have volunteered their time during each season. His good working relationship with the Hilo Naniloa Hotel and trustworthy crew, over the past several years, has made it possible for some much needed improvements to the course. The look of the course is a beautiful work in progress, but it will continue to get better as time goes on.
As the Hawai‘i County Planning Department and The Banyan Drive Hawai‘i Redevelopment Agency proposes to transform the entire Banyan Drive peninsula, there is much worry that the golf course will be no longer. Plans for a convention/cultural center and the expansion of Liliuokalani Gardens threaten an area used by so many young golfers in East Hawaii. Not only for Special Olympics but also for the Big Island Junior Golf Association. This change won’t happen in the very near future but, keep in mind, in a town where opportunities for locals to enjoy leisurely sporting activities (e.g. bowling) have been dwindling, it’s difficult to imagine a plan of such magnitude. There has been a lot of public input and, in the end, I’m hoping that a plan to support all of Hilo’s residents will prevail.