Monica Evans smiled as she practiced her favorite part of golf, the full swing, on the driving range at Timbers at Troy Golf Course in Elkridge. A few feet away, Jim Bradley worked on his form as he whacked balls on a hot summer evening.
Evans, 19, who has Down syndrome, and Bradley, 65, were taking part in a program that encourages people with and without disabilities to interact while they learn the game.
The golf course in Howard County is one of two locations in the nation offering Project GAIN -- which stands for Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks. The other site is in Salt Lake City.
"This kind of program is a natural fit for Howard County because we are inclusive and we try to keep people with disabilities and people without disabilities working together," said program coordinator Cindy Saathoff, who works in the county Department of Recreation and Parks.
Evans and Bradley were among 15 participants in the program's Level I, or introductory, classes, which concluded Tuesday at Timbers at Troy. Level II sessions are to begin Tuesday.
Evans' mother, Barbara Evans of Clarksville, said she plans to enroll in the Level II session with her daughter because "golf is a lifetime sport, and it's something we can do as a family."
She said her daughter loves to play sports and has enjoyed the golf lessons. "I thought it's a good opportunity for her because they have small classes and more one-on-one attention," Barbara Evans said. "They also differentiate their teaching style and have adaptive equipment for her."
Bradley, who lives in Ellicott City, started playing golf last summer and considers it his hobby. His wife enrolled him in the Level I course after he read about Project GAIN in a brochure at a senior citizen center. Bradley said he plans to take Levels II and III to improve his game.
K.H. Jones of Jessup, who stopped by to use the driving range, said he had taken the Level III instruction and was surprised by the skills of the disabled members of his group. "They hit the ball well," he said. "I was amazed at their athletic ability when it came to golf."
To foster social inclusion, Project GAIN welcomes people from ages 10 and older with physical and mental disabilities. The program provides them with specialized golf equipment based on their needs.
The level I instruction is free, while level II costs $20 and level III costs $29. Each level consists of six two-hour evening sessions. This year, Project GAIN started in March and is to conclude in late August.
Each session begins with a 45-minute inclusion activity led by Saathoff, who teaches participants golf terminology and familiarizes them with the golf course. But the larger purpose of the activity is to encourage interaction among the participants.
"Sometimes people with disabilities may be a little apprehensive, and people without disabilities may feel a little removed. So what the activity does is bring people together and break down barriers that they might have had. We do different things to build up camaraderie between participants," Saathoff said.
Steve Mills, one of the primary instructors of the level I sessions, said he loves introducing the game of golf to people, particularly those with disabilities. "People with special needs appreciate their experience more, and the interaction is great ... they seem to get more out of it," he said. "Our classes are fun because no one gets upset if they don't hit well."
Mills is an assistant golf professional at Timbers at Troy, where he has been working for a year and a half and spends 25 hours a week teaching participants of Project GAIN, as well as other golfers.
Project GAIN, a program of the National Alliance of Accessible Golf, receives funds from the United States Golf Association. The first grant started in May 2005 and ended in May 2006. The current grant, which started in June 2006 and runs for 18 months, will expire in September.
The first grant required the program to enroll at least 100 people throughout the year, 50 of whom have a disability. The idea was to pair a disabled individual with a participant without disabilities to foster a one-on-one relationship.
However, when Project GAIN acquired the current grant, the requirement was removed. "We wanted to make this more of a realistic situation, so now we work in groups of three or four," with one disabled person working with a few nondisabled people, Saathoff said.
The county is planning to continue Project GAIN in the fall, although it is not certain how much funding it will receive, said Susan Potts, therapeutic recreation and inclusive services supervisor for the Department of Recreation and Parks.
"It's very rewarding when you have people who have special needs work with people who have never golfed before, and then the roles are reversed since the people with special needs are teaching the people who have never golfed before how to hold the club," Saathoff said.
"It's fun to watch and it's very exciting to be a part of because they all come together for this class and work together."
Information on the Project GAIN program: Cindy Saathoff, 410-313-7281.