Eye on the ball

Chuck Smith of Hernando sinks a putt on the practice green at the Club at North Creek shortly before the start of the 18th Annual Autism Early Intervention Program Golf Tournament in Southaven.

Eighteen years ago, Wayne Bartley of Olive Branch was just a concerned dad who wanted the best education possible for his autistic Justin, then age five.

At that time, children who had been diagnosed within the autism spectrum disorder went shuttled from schools across DeSoto County to a small classroom at Southaven Elementary School.

At one time, students were housed in a cramped trailer on the campus.

Today, largely thanks to Bartley's pioneering efforts to attract some of the Mid-South's best behavioral therapists and special education teachers to Mississippi's fastest-growing county, autistic children are now able to stay at schools in their attendance zone and receive the best quality education possible.

"Back 18 years ago, they all were sent to one classroom and now we have self-contained classrooms in schools across the county," said Bartley. His son Justin is now 22 and attends an adult day program in Olive Branch.

Over the course of the past 18 years, Bartley's Autism Early Intervention Golf Tournament, also dubbed the "Let a Kid Be a Kid Golf Tourney," has raised a total of $350,000.

Funds from the tournament have been reinvested in the community in a variety of ways, such as purchasing iPads for autistic students and implementing programs aimed at more fully integrating autistic students into society.

Each year, Bartley and a team of volunteers stage the annual golf tournament at the Club at North Creek in Southaven.

"We had almost a full field," said Bartley of the flights of area golfers who turned out for the annual tournament. "This year, we raised between $14,000 and $15,000. That puts us over $350,000 that we've raised in 18 years. I don't know how many hundreds of kids are involved now. It's really blossomed."

Now that Bartley's son Justin is in his early twenties, he joins the ranks of hundreds of thousands of young adults with autism who have "aged out of school."

"Some have nowhere to go," added Bartley. "Within the next 10 years, a half a million kids with autism will age out of school."

Luckily for DeSoto County, there are now three adult day programs serving young adults with autism and other behavioral issues in DeSoto County.

The Mill Creek program is located in Nesbit, with Blossom in Southaven and The Hub in Olive Branch.

"Three or four years ago we had none," Bartley said.

Bartley, who has a giving fund established with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, the "Autism Assistance Fund," has, along with others, helped to "plant" three straw bale gardens at day program facilities which involve autistic young adults.

"Part of the proceeds from the golf tournament are going to that," added Bartley. "It also involves the community at large. Our master gardeners are also involved. It involves everyone."

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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