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Fore! Developmentally disabled take to the greens as Life Skills golf tournament raises the green

Jose Espinosa steps into the tee box of Meadowbrook Country Club's driving range. Ahead of him lie hundreds of yards of grassy terrain spotted with multicolored flags and golf balls. Espinosa peers out onto the surface, looks down, grabs a ball from a nearby bucket, gently places it in the tee box and launches the ball an incredible distance.

Before the ball even hits the ground, Espinosa turns around and finds Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and former St. Louis Blue Bernie Federko and gives him a high-five.

"How about that," Federko exclaims, wearing a large smile that is trumped only by Espinosa's grin. "Keep doing that."

While nailing golf balls and being congratulated by a famed hockey star may seem like a dream for golf or hockey enthusiasts, this scenario became a reality for Espinosa and other developmentally challenged people Monday afternoon.

As part of its 25th Annual "Tee It Up" Golf Tournament, Life Skills hosted a golf clinic for some of its clients. Federko and two Meadowbrook golf professionals gave basic golf tips to 10 Life Skills clients before cutting them loose on the driving range and the putting green.

"This was our first year for it," said Wendy Sullivan, president of Life Skills, which helps the developmentally disabled live independently and work in the St. Louis community. "This year we really wanted to incorporate people with disabilities. We thought it would be fun."

According to Sullivan, the tournament has raised $3.5 million in the last 25 years. All proceeds of the tournament go to Life Skills, which was established in 1964 and currently helps more than 1,500 adults and teens live in their own homes and find and keep jobs. For this year's tournament, Life Skills named Federko honorary chairman.

"They call me honorary chairman, but I'm honored to be part of this," said Federko, who has volunteered with the organization for almost 10 years. "It's been a great time for me."

While he normally helps strangers, Federko hopes his work with Life Skills can help his family, too. His 8-year-old nephew suffers from Down syndrome, and Federko hopes he can help any way he can.

"It's very important to my brother that when his son gets to be 16 that he can start living his own life," Federko said. "It really hits home with me."

Federko believes that exposing the developmentally challenged to sports helps build confidence while teaching them something fun and productive.

"When they excel at something, they feel like they're part of something," he said.

Espinosa knows about excelling. He drove the ball the farthest of any of the participants and impressed Federko and the golf pros.

"I've had a few lessons," he said nonchalantly.

Golf is just one way Espinosa likes to keep in shape. He works at a gym and frequently uses the equipment. He has lost almost 60 pounds since beginning his job.

"I was 193, but now I'm down to 139," he said. "I have four trainers."

According to Sullivan, Life Skills takes pride in its clients' accomplishments on and off the golf course.

"We're having as much fun as them by just watching them succeed," she said. "It's amazing."

Federko is happy just to give Life Skills clients an opportunity to engage in sports.

"For them to apart of golf is important," Federko said. "We've all gotten the opportunity to play sports. I was fortunate enough to play professional hockey, but I love golf. Golf is one of those great sports where it doesn't matter how good you are."

Patrick Sullivan, a student at the University of Kentucky, is an intern at the Beacon. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan was a student at the University of Kentucky and an intern for the STL Beacon in Fall 2010

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