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WHITTIER – The 21st Annual Rancho Golf Classic, which was played Monday at the Friendly Hills Country Club in Whittier, raised more than $75,000 for the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation’s work and at the same time raised the spirits of everyone who participated in the event.
It was an especially meaningful day for Rancho Wheelchair Sports team members Genaro “Nano” Perez and Michael Wiggins, and longtime Rancho volunteer Tom Hale, who experienced a day that they will always remember.
Nano and Michael had never played a round of golf before Monday. Their first round wouldn’t be easy because of the hilly terrain on the Friendly Hills Course. After all, 10-year old Nano has Spina Bifida and usually uses a wheelchair to get around. On this day, he chose to use forearm crutches so he didn’t have to transfer to and from a wheelchair every time he hit a shot. Michael came to Rancho with a catastrophic spinal cord injury due to a gunshot wound. His only option was to play out of his wheelchair.
Nano has always been a special boy. He was born on Christmas Eve, and he carries the spirit of Christmas in his heart each and every day. Spina bifida may have sapped some of the strength from his body, but it hasn’t affected his attitude. “You’ll never find a happier boy than Nano,” said his coach, Rick Tirambulo. “He is dedicated to both sports and school, and he does both with a smile on his face and in his heart.”
To propel himself on the golf course, Nano had to place all his weight on his forearms and swing himself forward. “It’s not easy,” Nano said, “but I have learned how to do things that are hard. I had a lot of fun playing golf, because I figured out how to hit the ball straight even though I could only have one hand on the golf club.”
To hit the ball, Nano shifted his weight to his left arm, slid the forearm crutch off his right arm, picked up a golf club with his right hand, and hit the ball while swinging one-handed.
“Most people have trouble hitting a golf ball with two hands, let alone trying to hit the ball with just one hand on the club,” said tournament honorary chair Supervisor Don Knabe. “It was inspiring to watch his struggle and his ultimate success,” said Don, who played in the foursome directly behind Nano and Michael.
Nano’s biggest moment on the course came on the 13th hole, when his team had a three foot putt for a birdie. He adjusted his balance, dropped the crutch from his right hand, picked up the putter and gauged the break of the putt before swinging. His putt appeared headed too far to the right, but at the last moment it broke left and dropped into the center of the cup.
“I made it! I made it! he exclaimed, as a huge smile broke out across his face. Walking down the fairway to hit their next shots, the next foursome, including Supervisor Knabe, Los Angeles County CEO Bill Fujioka and his wife Darlene Kuba and expert golfer Russel Imamura cheered for the young boy. Imagine…a birdie on Nano’s first golf outing!
Michael also made a memory to last a lifetime. He had wanted to play golf for many years, and had been to a driving range on several occasions, but was never able to play on a real course. “I had always dreamed of golfing, but as the years rolled by I thought I might never actually get to play a real round of golf.”
He has dealt with the effects of a catastrophic spinal cord injury since 1992, when he entered rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in 1992 for rehabilitation. It’s not easy to hit a golf ball out of a wheelchair, because it is impossible to turn during a swing the way a normal golfer would.
Who would have guessed that Michael would also hit a great shot during his round? It happened on the 18th hole, after his teammates each hit poor approach shots that stopped far short of the green. Michael was their last hope, but he was tired from carrying his wheelchair in his golf cart throughout the round. “My wheelchair was getting real heavy, because every time I hit a shot, I had to take it out of the golf cart, transfer in, hit my shot, roll back to the cart, transfer back to the cart and then pull my wheelchair back onto my lap,” Michael said.
“I just focused on the target, and it felt real good as I hit it,” said Michael. But it wasn’t good – it was great. Michael’s shot hit the large green and rolled closer and closer to the hole. It stopped less than three feet from the cup, an easy putt that teammate Stephen Malone tapped in for the foursome’s second birdie of the day.
Rancho and the wheelchair sports team have taught Michael and Nano how to overcome adversity. “I knew it was going to be tough for us, but I new we would not give up until we completed every hole to the best of our ability,” Michael said. “Wheelchair sports has given me a sense of independence and helped me get past all the rough spots in my life.”
This fall, Michael will enroll at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he will be a member of the college’s wheelchair basketball team. “Rancho has opened a tremendous door for me, and I believe all my hard work over the years has also helped me earn this opportunity to get a higher education,” Michael said. “My goal is to keep working until I get my Ph.D.” Those who watched him play Monday wouldn’t bet against him. While youth was served at the Rancho Golf Classic, it was also a seminal moment in the distinguished life of Tom Hale. Tom ran the tournament’s putting contest and worked throughout the day with his wife Marjorie as a spotter for the hole-in-one contest. The Hales also contributed the $2,000 first prize for the tournament’s opportunity drawing.
Tom has lived most of his life in Downey, serving as an engineer for Rockwell for more than 25 years before retiring and becoming a volunteer at Rancho. He has completed 30 years of volunteer service to the hospital, which was the cause for a surprise celebration at the tournament dinner.
After awards were presented to Tournament Title Sponsor AT&T, Platinum Sponsors Don Knabe and Sodexo, Gold Sponsors The Annenberg Foundation and Martin E-Z Stick Labels, Dinner Sponsor Vanir Construction Management, Shirt Sponsor Reimbursement Services Group, and Auto Sponsors Cerritos Infiniti and Chevrolet of Malibu, Supervisor Knabe called Tom to the stage.
Mr. Hale moved as fast as his soon-to-be 89-year-old legs would carry him while Rancho CEO Jorge Orozco explained the significance of a very special 30th anniversary gift. It was a beautifully engraved clock thanking Tom for his extraordinary service to Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. As Tom accepted his award, the entire room honored him with a standing ovation. It brought tears to his eyes.
“Tom is a very humble man, yet he is justifiably proud of his contribution to Rancho’s patients,” said Rancho Director of Volunteer Services Debbie Tomlinson. “Tom runs a special carpentry shop at Rancho where he and his friend and fellow volunteer Karl Burger make wondrous pieces of special wood equipment for patients,” she said. Tom has developed several thousand individual devices and other projects to help patients take full advantage of the abilities that remain after suffering a catastrophic disabling condition.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve spent more years working at Rancho than I did at my real job,” Mr. Hale said.
It was easy to see the meaning the clock had for him when he returned to his seat and slowly rubbed each facet of it. “I was thinking about what this clock represents…all the hours spent in a true labor of love helping Rancho…and knowing that in some small way, I have made a difference in the lives of thousands of Rancho patients,” he said. “I can’t explain in words how meaningful this has been for me.”
Michael, who is six decades younger than Tom, will turn 29 in September. He has pursued what for many years appeared to be an impossible dream of going to college. “I was worn out today when I got to the last few holes, but I have learned that sometimes you have to be willing to work a little harder and dig a little deeper if you want to be successful,” Michael said. “I never quit on my dream, and now it is coming true.”
When Nano entered the ballroom, he was seated with the Chevrolet of Montebello team. As the raffle winners were being announced, one of those at the table won a game-worn Laker uniform. Nano’s eyes seemed as large as saucers as the prize was brought to the table. Then there was another wonderful surprise, as the winner said ,”This is for you, Nano,” and handed him the prize. His dazzling smile lit up the room, was the perfect end to Nano’s special day.
The Rancho Golf Classic was about more than just golf. It was also about celebrating the achievements of Nano, Michael and Tom, three remarkable individuals who made the day a masterpiece.
For further information, call the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation at (562) 401-7053 or visit rancho.org, facebook.com/rancholosamigosrehab or twitter.com/ranchorehab.
Published: August 11, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 17