Pro golfer Ernie Els and his charitable foundation will build a $30 million "epicenter for autism research, transition and treatment" in the Limestone Creek area near Jupiter, it was announced Tuesday.
"We will have students from 3 to 21 years old," said Mary Kay Willson, tournament director for the Ernie Els Foundation. "Transition programs will be available to help students move forward to adulthood. We will have sports programs. Having all these in one location will make this a unique program for children with autism and their families."
Plans submitted to Palm Beach County call for a 100,000-square-foot school and resource center for 300 students with autism on a 27-acre parcel north of Indiantown Road and east of I-95 in unincorporated Palm Beach County, near Jupiter Community Park, according to the announcement by Jupiter's Els, a Professional Golfers' Association star.
Els' wife, Liezl, and their Ernie Els Foundation have been at the forefront of fundraising for autism research since their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism in 2008. Plans call for opening of the Palm Beach County charter school by the end of 2014.
It would be the first charter school in the county for children with autism to offer education from first grade through high school, followed by transition to adulthood. The Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach School for Autism in Lantana, two schools for children with autism, offer education through middle school only.
Like all charter schools, the Els Foundation school will be open to all students in Palm Beach County.
Having a school from first grade through high school for children with autism will allow students to learn easier and be more comfortable, said Candi Spitz, spokeswoman for Autism Speaks. Spitz's twin 5-year-old sons, Brendan and Jaden, have autism.
And the fact the Els Foundation school will have medical treatment, sports and research all in the same place will make life easier for parents and children, she said.
"Getting medical treatment for children with autism can be a nightmare. Having treatment, education and research all in one place takes the Els Foundation school to a whole new level," Spitz said.
Cheryl Pray, executive director of Els' foundation, said the timing of the announcement coincides with the raising of $15 million, putting the group halfway to its $30 million goal to finance the facility. Pray said that the Els family has committed $6 million to the cause.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche expects the center to attract international and national recognition.
"This is very positive for north county," Valeche said. "I expect there will be strong resident support," he said, adding that "there may be some concerns about traffic."
The school will fill a strong need in the community, said Jupiter Councilwoman Wendy Harrison. "Families are very excited about the program," she said.
Els, who tied for 46th in last weekend's Honda Classic at PGA National, is in the field for the Cadillac Championship at Doral Resort, near Miami, which begins Thursday. He spoke at a press conference to preview the tournament.
Els also announced the Els for Autism Golf Challenge, a charity-driven international tournament that will have more than 20 events this season, three of them in South Florida. One of them will be the series finale at the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, formerly the Ritz-Carlton.
Els appeared at the press conference with new Doral owner Donald Trump, whose courses will host several of the Golf Challenge events, and said he expects Trump's involvement to speed his fundraising efforts. Said Pray, "Mr. Trump's interest in supporting this foundation, and his interest and commitment to understanding autism, is very touching."
Added Els, "At the end of the day, we want to build this great center for these kids. These are special kids and they need some really special help, and that's what this thing is all about."
The facility will include a sports complex and swimming pool that would be available for community use. Pray said it will be made available to outside groups such as Special Olympics, but interaction between children without autism also will be encouraged.
Els said his goal is to raise another $3 million this year through the golf events. He said Trump is doing his part by giving him a significant break on rent for using his courses for the Golf Classic events.
The Golf Challenge series will kick off April 2 at the Floridian in Palm City, with the second event April 29 at Doral and the series finale at Trump National in Jupiter on Sept. 30. Entry fees are $400 for the Floridian event, $300 for Doral and $500 for the Jupiter event. For information, go to www.elsforautism.com