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Fore Hope: Local nonprofit offers hope through golf

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Mindy Derr was simply doing what felt right by visiting her sister-in-law's brother, who was recovering in an Ohio State hospital room.

She never expected her life's work to come up in polite conversation.

"They told me about Fore Hope here," Terry Hitchman told Derr when she visited him in March 2013. Hitchman had his right leg amputated after a bout with soft tissue sarcoma, a type of cancer that develops from certain tissues like bone or muscle.

For the last 25 years, Derr has been the executive director of Fore Hope, a local nonprofit organization that uses golf as a vehicle to improve the quality of life for people with various life challenges, such as disabilities, injuries and illnesses.

"I never pushed Fore Hope on him," Derr said. "But I told him, we're here whenever you're ready."

On April 23, Hitchman was ready. Along with his wife, Tammy, he drove a little more than an hour south from their home in Richland County to Four Seasons Golf Center in Whitehall. There, he spent an hour with Fore Hope's program director and certified therapeutic recreation specialist, Lisa LaVelle, and the organization's golf professional, Brent Kalb.

Last January, Hitchman received his prosthetic leg. Three months later, he was wearing it seven hours a day with a goal to wear it comfortably all day. His session with LaVelle and Kalb was the first time Hitchman, an avid golfer, had taken full swings since his amputation.

"A lot of times amputees are highly functional versus someone who has suffered a stroke, for example," Derr said. "He can ambulate very well. We'll just tweak his golf swing. He probably won't need us for very long."

Goes back to Guy

Guy Derr retired from the Flexible Bus Company, where he worked as a supervisor, in 1982. His plan was to live his retirement in Loudonville that would include long days on the links for the avid golfer with a 2 handicap.

However, he needed surgery six months into his retirement and was later diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis. His wife, Jean, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 1987. No longer able to play golf and without his wife, he fell into depression.

Mindy Derr, Guy's daughter, graduated from Ohio State a year before her father retired. Her background was in non-profit organizations and she always knew she wanted to do something with golf.

"My family, not me, but my brothers and my dad, were the best golfers," she said. "In three counties, the Derrs were known for their golf. My dad was the tops. My one brother considered going pro and my other brother became a golf course superintendent."

In 1989, Derr left her position as an executive with Boy Scouts of America to start Fore Hope.

"About that time, dad became truly disabled," she said. "There were only a few programs, but it was only golf-teaching professionals who were skilled to teach people with disabilities."

Derr had a bigger plan. She wanted to create an adaptive golf program for people like her dad. While working in northeast Ohio for the Boy Scouts, she came across Akron General Hospital and its adaptive golf program. She attended an open house, where she met Barbara Nicklaus.

"I was talking to her about fundraising," Derr said. "She said to me, 'You know, Mindy, Columbus is great when it comes to that.' I remember thinking, 'Thank God,' because I knew I was coming here."

Key connections essential to success

Fore Hope will hosted its annual champagne breakfast at The Country Club at Muirfield Village in May. Beginning in 1992, the breakfast has featured a guest speaker, which typically is a PGA Tour professional.

The Memorial Tournament has been a supporter of Fore Hope's mission since the non-profit's inception. Tournament director Dan Sullivan is one of six Fore Hope advisers and helps secure the guest speaker for the annual breakfast during the week of the Memorial Tournament.

"Columbus is such a great place for philanthropy," Derr said. "Almost immediately when I arrived here, I was able to start a small board. The (United States Golf Association) provided funding and grants and then (The) Scotts (Company), the Memorial Tournament and Red Roof Inn were on board. Eventually, I raised enough money to add a part-time administrative assistant and we eventually were able to pay a pro a little bit."

Fore Hope relies on financial support from corporations and individuals to stay afloat, and, in the early years of the organization's existence, Derr was always on the lookout for more monetary help.

Every day, she would rush to her post office box in Grandview, hoping to receive financial donations. In 1991, she received a check from Rose Scheeff, a North Olmsted resident with whom she had no connection. Fore Hope had been featured on a nationally syndicated TV show produced by OhioHealth. Almost immediately after the show aired, Scheeff put the check in the mail.

Scheeff, who had a 4 handicap, was the former owner of Springvale Golf Club and Ballroom in North Olmsted. Her contribution to Fore Hope began a strong relationship between her and Derr. Each year, Derr would receive a phone call from Scheeff telling her to "come on up."

"I knew what that meant," Derr said. "They had a home on Catawba Island and the first 10 years were the best. We'd go up north and take a boat ride and visit her home on the island."

Scheeff passed away in January 2010. Today, Fore Hope offers investors the chance to contribute to the Rose Scheeff Legacy Society, which was founded in October 2010 by Scheeff's $285,000 legacy gift.

"Her donations kept us in the ballgame," Derr said. "We would not be alive today without Rose's gift."

Providing hope through golf

Members of Good Hands Supported Living come out monthly to the Four Seasons Golf Center eager to try hitting a golf ball.

It didn't matter if members of the adult habilitation center could walk or were confined to a wheelchair, as LaVelle adapts each participant's golf swing at the driving range. Regardless of whether the golf ball came to rest 15 feet or 150 yards from the tee, when contact occurred, a smile appears.

"They come once a month and they love it," LaVelle said. "There isn't much technique, but they're having fun and having social interaction. When you see that smile after they make contact or hit it in the hole when they're putting, that's the best thing."

Derr was able to hire LaVelle, who has been with Fore Hope since September 2009, as well as her predecessors thanks to Scheeff's donations.

LaVelle knew early on she wanted to be a therapist and help people who had life challenges. Being a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, she is able to enhance a person's quality of life through recreation. Generally speaking, recreation makes people happy. LaVelle's skills are to learn how to adapt leisure activities to get people back to doing what they love, which in turn, makes them happy.

Golf, on the other hand, can be frustrating. Yet, it works in this setting, according to LaVelle.

"At first, I was a bit nervous thinking how could I help these people," LaVelle said. "It was hard for me to see them so discouraged in the beginning, but as a therapist, I believe in them and I let them know they can do it. I've seen people grow. Their game has changed and their attitude has changed. It's been great."

Fore Hope hosts a golf league once a week during the summer at Safari Golf Club. The league is mostly for individuals like Hitchman, an amputee, or others who suffer from any number of issues, such as multiple sclerosis, stroke or Parkinson's disease, to name a few. Fore Hope has even reached out to military personnel.

LaVelle, Kalb and numerous volunteers will help those participating in the league in any number of capacities, from teeing a ball, to lining up the visually impaired, to driving a golf cart.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 54 million Americans live with a disability, mental or physical health issue or have developmental challenges.

Enter Fore Hope, which doesn't discriminate by age or circumstance. According to its website, among the benefits of therapeutic golf are:

•Balance

•Decision-making skills

•Independence

•Long-term memory skills

•Recreation

•Range of motion

•Short-term memory skills

•Social interaction

•Standing tolerance

•Strength/endurance

"I was really surprised when I started doing more with Fore Hope," said Kalb, who has been the organization's pro and volunteer since 2006. "It is amazing all the things the game of golf can help these people with."

Looking at the future for Fore Hope

Fore Hope's quarter-century run is being celebrated all year.

In January, Fore Hope had a golf outing at Gold Canyon Golf Resort in Arizona, and the Fore Hope/Guy Derr Participant Appreciation Tournament will be held Friday, Aug. 15 at Safari. The eight-hole tournament pairs a Fore Hope member with a community partner. In addition, trick-shot artist and paraplegic Dennis Walters will be on hand.

Those events, along with the legacy gift provided by Scheeff, the Memorial Tournament's support, the Guy Derr Leadership Society donors and other donations have kept Fore Hope sustainable.

"We pull and tug and we make an impact," Derr said. "We average 300 participants a year, but Rose's legacy gift won't last forever. Things are changing with nonprofits. More and more, there are alignments of like minds. So, should we merge? Should we collaborate? Should we be acquired?"

According to financial summaries at ForeHope.org, the nonprofit received $108,818 in contributions and grants in 2011, but that number fell to $93,731 in 2012. Although it has been better, Derr said, donations for all nonprofits, Fore Hope included, suffered around the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and again when the global financial crisis began in late 2007. In 2009, Fore Hope lost three major grantors, Derr said.

"As it's our 25th anniversary, the last couple of years we've been taking a look at what does our future hold," Derr said. "Quite frankly, we don't know."

Derr favors the model in place at Akron General Hospital with the Edwin Shaw Rehabilitation Institute's challenge golf program.

"From the very beginning, that was the template I saw and felt it was just right for us before coming to Columbus," Derr said. "Here we are all these years later still talking with them and it would be great to emulate their model."

Derr's job responsibilities keep her tethered to an office chair, though she does go out searching for additional donations. Seeing her deal with the daily grind of running a non-profit organization is disappointing at times for Fore Hope's other full-time employee, LaVelle.

"It's easy to get caught up and get frustrated in the day-to-day activities," LaVelle said. "I wish she could be out here more and experience the joy on peoples' faces hitting the ball. That's why we're here, so they can come out have fun and walk away with a better overall quality of life."

"It's been absolutely amazing and empowering to work for such a strong woman that has kept this business afloat for 25 years. Even after all the struggles we go through, we've been here 25 years because of Mindy."

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