Jessica Jones wanted to improve some parts of her golf game this spring. The Ellicott City resident gave a blunt answer when asked what needed work.
"My putting stunk, my chipping stunk, everything needed work," said Jones, 21, who plays on the Howard County Special Olympics golf team.
Searching for some way to improve on the course, she found answers at one of her team's Thursday practices, learning about Project GAIN, which stands for Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks. That program helped her get six free two-hour golf lessons at Timbers at Troy Golf Course in Elkridge and -- even better -- make a few new friends.
Project GAIN is a grant-funded program from the National Alliance for Accessible Golf through Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns Timbers at Troy and expects to continue the program next year.
Locally, the idea is to pair 50 people who have various disabilities with 50 who do not in a mentor-friend relationship.
The Professional Golf Association of America is a program sponsor, along with the PGA Tour and the United States Golf Association. Project GAIN programs have been offered around the nation for the past five years.
Cindy Saathoff, a part-time rec department employee and project coordinator, said that anyone older than 10 is eligible, "and they don't have to be county residents."
Local pros have been instructed on how to work with golfers with disabilities and already have taught through two six-week sessions. They will have up to 24 people in a group and are offering a number of sessions throughout the summer.
"For our golfers with disabilities, I think it's a wonderful program," Saathoff said. "It's introducing them to the game of golf and ways they can make this game happen for them. Also, it makes the golf course comfortable for people with disabilities and those who interact with them."
Gary Robb, executive director of the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University, presides over Project GAIN nationally. Robb said that the program has several goals, the most important of which involves drawing out people with disabilities.
"The ultimate goal is to get people with disabilities included in the fabric of the community," Robb said. "The golf is just the [mechanism]. It might take them to places away from the course. We want people with disabilities to go to golf courses on their own."
The bonding between the participants is important. Saathoff said that the first 30 minutes of the two-hour lessons involve a social-inclusion activity designed to help create a link between the golfers.
Cathy Vigus, therapeutic recreation supervisor for the county rec department, said disabled players are being introduced to many different types of "adaptive equipment" -- golf gear designed to help those with disabilities.
That gear includes golf carts designed to let people swing from the seats instead of climb out, lighter-weight clubs for easier swings, and a way to put a ball on a tee in the ground without bending over. Special gloves also are available for those who cannot grip a club in the usual ways.
"If they don't know much about golf, they [might be] a little intimidated by the golf course," Vigus said. "The idea here is to get people to the golf course, in the clubhouse, so that they can pursue something they can do for the rest of their lives."
Participants in the program move from clubhouse familiarization to practice tees and greens, where they are taught hitting the ball, holding equipment, reading greens, chipping and putting.
"We just went over what we'd teach," said Rick Aleshire, an assistant pro at Timbers and a program instructor.
Jones, the county Special Olympian, has built a golf game despite battling disabilities. She was born two months early with heart problems that surgery corrected, but it still affects her at times. In addition, she has attention deficit disorder.
But Jones keeps playing, and finding this program proved to be a solution to her problems on the course this spring. She worked with the pros on chipping and putting, among other techniques. They went on the course in their final lesson, and Jones was thrilled to be able to chip the ball onto the green with confidence and hit the ball strongly.
"I loved what the program was; it helped me get a better game in golf," Jones said.
But what she loved even more was what the program's organizers wanted -- "the things that had nothing to do with golf."
"It was just so much fun," she said. "I enjoyed meeting new people and just being around other people who didn't know how to play golf and helping them. I am ready to [do it] again."
Information on the Project GAIN program, contact the Timbers at Troy Golf Course in Elkridge, 410-313-4653.